Friday, September 28, 2007

Image Analysis

For Friday, a lighter topic than usual:

Yesterday I was talking with some of the undergraduate women in the language class I am taking. One of them asked me if all the men in my department walk around with pens in their shirt pockets, wear white athletic socks, and have 'weird hair'. I laughed, assuming she was joking. She said "No, really, aren't science profs like that?". Well, in fact that does describe one or two of my colleagues, but I said no anyway. And I certainly didn't want to get into a debate about who has weirder hair -- professors or students. Come to think of it, I didn't want to talk about the pens either. I am not a pen-carrying (P-C) person, but some of my best friends are P-C.

I was once walking on a beach with my husband (who is totally P-C, though not of the shirt pocket subspecies), and a man ran up to us and said, rather desperately, "I know this is going to sound strange but I REALLY need a pen right now. Do you have one?" My husband presented the desperate beach-guy with a choice of pens: black, blue, red, or green. It would be hard to imagine a happier person than the pen-seeking beach guy at that moment.

In the conversation this morning, my student-friend had just moved on to the observation that many science guys wear shirts that look like graph paper, a fact I cannot deny, when fortunately class started and the conversation had to end.

I suppose it doesn't surprise me that students are so aware of what we professors wear. A few years ago a colleague showed me an angry letter an undergraduate had written to the department chair requesting that professors in the department wear suits and ties (even the women? alas, he did not specify). I have a hard time believing that most students are longing for suited professors or that students care more about what the professor looks like than how he/she teaches.

Even so, I do hope that the P-C/white sock/graph-paper shirt guy not be the first-order image that students have of science professors.

Maybe I will wear a lab coat to class today, and see if anyone notices.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Substitution Stress

This week I did a guest lecture for a colleague who is traveling. It is always strange substituting for someone else, especially in a large undergraduate class. It’s sort of like the first day of class in that the students don’t know you and you don’t know them. On the first day of class, however, there is the expectation that you will have other opportunities to meet, and the students can build their impression of your teaching ability, style, and dedication over the course of many class days.

When you substitute for one class on one day, it’s hard to know if you are an unwelcome disruption of some students' learning experience (i.e., they are already in a routine and enjoying the teaching style of their usual instructor), a welcome change of pace/scenery (though perhaps not as much fun as an in-class movie), or just another professor rambling on about Science at the front of a large lecture room.

The class I taught this week was a giant intro class, so I didn’t know the students and I didn’t know the lecture room. As I was thinking about the lecture before class, I started to stress out a bit, but then I asked myself “How much harm can I do in 50 minutes?”. So I decided instead to focus on telling the students about the topic of the day, not worry about how much or how little I covered, and just try to get a few key points across. I concentrated on thinking of some new examples, images, and demonstrations that would explain some of the more difficult concepts, and this made it fun for me as well.

In the back of my mind – though further back than it might once have been – was concern about projecting at least some intellectual authority to a large group that doesn’t know me. I wasn’t worried about my ability to speak knowledgeably and confidently about the topic, but I am a somewhat-short blonde woman with a soft voice (I have to use a microphone in a large lecture hall), and I was substituting for an intellectually aggressive man who does not need a microphone even in the largest classrooms and who has graying hair and professorial glasses.

A positive aspect of being a substitute is that you’re just blasting in for a day to talk about an interesting topic – you are not the cause of the students’ collective or individual anxiety about exams, and you don’t have to deal with their complicated personal lives (though my colleague has kindly been sharing the bizarre emails he gets every week with tales of woe about missed classes and quizzes). In this particular case, I was also fortunate that it was a nice class. Students asked questions during and after class, and several students thanked me after the class – I can assure you that I do not get thanked after each of my regular classes.

So, despite the stress of preparing an extra lecture and going into someone else’s class and trying to be eloquent and interesting and professorial (in the best sense of the word) with no chance for redemption if I failed, the fun of talking about Science to a large group, the lack of real consequences, and the goodwill of the students counter-balanced the stress and made it an enjoyable experience.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Dining With Jerks

At least several times each year, I host a scientific visitor who gives a talk or two and who spends time with my research group and others. In some cases, the visitor is someone I know and I therefore have a good idea of how to arrange the logistics of their visit, including social activities (meals).

In some cases, I don’t know the person. This situation occurs when (1) the department as a whole invites a visitor to give a talk and I either volunteer or agree to be the host; or (2) my research group invites a speaker whose work we know but who is not known to me personally. I like meeting new people, especially if they have interesting things to say, and I don’t mind at all being host to someone I don’t know. I have made some great new colleagues this way.

There may, however, be pitfalls to hosting someone you don’t know. When I organize the schedule of someone visiting my research group, I ask my students and others who can go to lunch, who can go to dinner, who can meet in the lab at what time, etc., How it all works out depends on everyone’s schedules. Despite my apparent obsession with gender issues in science, I don’t even think about gender balance when organizing these schedules – my group is diverse, so it's not an issue.

As it turns out, one dinner that I organized for a visitor I had never met before would have involved the visitor’s dining with an all-female group (not including me; I had another commitment that night). I didn’t think anything of the gender ratio of the planned dinner party until someone who knew the visitor from a previous institution told me that she respected his research greatly but that he should not be alone with women in a social setting. She and other women had some bad experiences with him at social events at their previous institution.

What to do? Find a male bodyguard for the women? Try to get so many women to attend the dinner that he wouldn’t dare try anything? Suggest they eat at a steakhouse so they will be well-armed with useful utensils? Make him dine alone? Threaten him politely to avert potential problems?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Today I got an email from someone to whom I have provided significant input regarding research ideas and writing in recent years. We are not collaborators by any means, but our fields overlap enough that we have had extensive conversations and I have reviewed several of his recent papers. Today he wrote to apologize for not acknowledging me by name in his most recent papers, even though (according to his email) some of my comments and ideas have significantly changed/improved his work. If he hadn’t emailed me, I would never have noticed that my assistance was unacknowledged.

In any case, I thought “No big deal”, assuming that he had just spaced out on the acknowledgments and only mentioned his grants or something like that. Out of curiosity, I looked at the acknowledgments of one of the papers that could very reasonably have acknowledged my input, and there I read a list of several Famous Male Professors who had provided input, reviews, and ‘insightful conversations’.

So .. following up on yesterday's post, shall we give him the so-called benefit of the doubt and assume that I wasn’t overlooked because I am female and therefore just basically a helpful person by nature whose help becomes part of the upholstery, and that it is a coincidence that the people acknowledged by name just happen to be senior male professors whose every utterance is surely an intellectual gift to be treasured? I am fine with that, even if I don’t believe it 100%.

Fortunately, my delicate ego has emerged from this latest minor episode unscathed yet again, and I will not hold this lack of public acknowledgment against the author. My guess is that he emailed me today because he is worried that I will very likely be asked to review manuscripts of his again, and I might be so incensed at his ingratitude that I will lash out at his data, not to mention his interpretations, and thereby derail his fledgling career. I would never do that, although I admit that it doesn't bother me if concern about this makes him briefly and temporarily anxious.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Gender Lens

Every once in awhile, someone writes or tells me that I am seeing things through the gender lens. I have probably used those words at some point too.

I have a feeling that only women are told that they see things through the gender lens. What exactly is the gender lens? To me, the gender lens brings things into focus. Most people who use the phrase, however, seem to believe that this lens causes distortion, and therefore, because my vision is obscured or skewed, I am likely to interpret a remark or incident as sexist.

In fact, I do ‘see’ sexism quite frequently; that is true. When you have been told directly and/or indirectly nearly every day for more than 20 years of a career as a female science professor that you are not as serious, intelligent, mature, interesting, technically skilled, quantitative, creative, or professional as men with equal or lesser talents, you do start to get the impression that sexism is pervasive.

If there is a gender lens, it is like an excellent (although perhaps unstylish) pair of sunglasses that lets one see things clearly even in harsh light. Those without such glasses are squinting into the glare and unable to see some very obvious things. I highly recommend a pair of gender lenses to those who are unable to see sexism even where it is rampant and pervasive. They don't make you see something that isn't there -- they just let you see.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Training Wheels and Oracles

One of my more oppressed female colleagues described to me a recent meeting in which she and 4 male faculty met to discuss possible changes to a course that has long been taught in a particular way. She had some new ideas for the course, but all of her ideas were ignored or dismissed except when one senior faculty member stepped in to support her. Then her ideas were taken more seriously.

I and many others have written about this phenomenon at length -- that is, the mysterious power that men have to make a statement seem creative, reasonable, interesting, doable, when the same statement from a woman is ignored or squelched.

This latest example made me wonder whether the senior faculty member who acted as the female professor's advocate was sort of like a gender sensitivity 'training wheel' for the other men or whether they will never really hear what women are saying in meetings or other professional settings. That is, if a female professor has an advocate who supports her ideas again and again during committee meetings, will that committee eventually be able to listen, even when the training wheel is removed and the ideas are expressed by a higher pitched voice? Or will these men always need an oracular senior male to pronounce what is worthy of serious consideration?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Onset of Conventional Wisdom

This week I am reviewing a manuscript about a topic that is near-and-dear to me. The authors cite some of my recent papers on this topic, but not the 'original' paper that seems most obvious to cite in the context of the manuscript under review. There is even one sentence that is essentially identical to one in the uncited paper. The authors use a synonym for one key word, but the sentence is otherwise the same.

This is not a lament or complaint about inadequate referencing or plagiarism or my bruised ego or the infinitesimal loss to my citation index.

The lack of citation, however, makes me wonder at which point an idea or body of work becomes so accepted that referencing it seems absurd or pointless.

For example, in the case of the sentence that the manuscript's authors (barely) modified from one in my old paper, one could argue that the sentence in the earlier paper states something that is now obvious -- that is, it states something that has become so widely accepted that a reference is no longer needed. Perhaps the manuscript authors are young and so an idea published in ancient times (i.e., 5 years ago) is old news? I don't know, but since I clearly remember a time when this 'old' paper represented a change in the way people thought about this topic (and since I am not objective in this particular case), perhaps I am not quite ready to think of the work as conventional wisdom yet.

I bet if I looked at my own papers in terms of what statements I think require a citation and which don't, there might well be a dividing line corresponding to the time at which I started writing papers (graduate school). Surely everything before then had long been known, but anything since then is a 'new' idea?

In my review, I am not going to advise the authors to cite my paper. They have clearly read it and been positively influenced by it, and I will content myself with the warm and fuzzy feeling that gives me and with the knowledge that it is better to have one's work become 'conventional wisdom' (however briefly) than to be ignored and dismissed.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

It Can't Be Done

At various times in my academic career, I have proposed a research project to a colleague or a graduate student, but the project has either not captured their interest, or the project has been deemed impossible to do or not worth doing. That is fine. I am perfectly willing to face the fact that not all my ideas are interesting, feasible, or sane (or that I am easy to work with).

The main topic of this post involves situations in which I went ahead and did a project anyway -- with different colleagues or students -- and then the original, dismissive colleagues/students get upset. Perhaps I could have worked harder to 'sell' them on the project, but if someone says to me "That project can't be done" and is not impressed with my arguments for why/how it can and should be done, I am going to work with someone else. It can be good to work with someone who makes you reexamine your ideas and forces you to make a compelling case for the research, but the collaboration will only work if the other person does something other than seeing the negative side of everything and creating unnecessary obstacles.

In one case involving a student at my previous university, I spent considerable time getting the student started on a project so that he could get far enough into it to see that the research could be very interesting and significant. After a year, he decided it was "too difficult", involved too much tedious work, and was not worth his time. He moved on to another project and advisor, and I did the original project with an undergraduate who completed a senior thesis, published a paper, and went on to success in graduate school and beyond. A couple of years later, the first student told me that he was upset that I had not invited him to return to the project once it was further advanced and was clearly going to lead to something. He said "So you wanted to keep the glory for yourself?". It was clear from discussing the situation with him that he remained unconvinced that it wasn't somehow my fault that he ended up with a dead-end project with another advisor.

I know that some students might not have the necessary perspective to make a decision about which dissertation project will have the highest impact, but at the same time, I am not going to force a student to do a project that they say they hate.

Similarly, a colleague I approached about an interesting project thought the project not worth doing. It was not just a casual dismissal of the project -- we had a number of conversations about it, and the colleague did a lot of background reading and thinking before deciding the work couldn't be done. Other colleagues and I did the research anyway, and it turned out to be extremely interesting (even more interesting than I first imagined). The colleague who dismissed the project is now upset that I did the work with others, although we remain on friendly terms.

How hard should I have worked to involve this person before deciding to work with others? How hard should I work to convince a student to work on a project that they are inclined to reject?

Sometimes I get asked by others to work on projects with them and I say no, most typically because I don't have time. I really hope that if I say no because of erroneous pessimism about a project, that I would know that I had let slip a good opportunity and would feel wistful, but not bitter, about it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Writing the Perfect Rejection Letter

I need to write some rejection letters soon. There are nice ways and not-nice ways to write these, but there seems to be no perfect way. I tend to write personalized rejection letters so that each candidate knows their application was carefully considered, but I wonder if that makes the rejectee feel better or worse. That is, is it better to be rejected in an impersonal way, as if by a committee or department, or is it better to be rejected by someone who thought about your application but still doesn't want to hire you?

I don't go on and on about each rejected candidate's application -- I keep it short -- but I do like to show that the application was read and considered.

For those candidates who applied even though they had absolutely no expertise relevant to the position, it is easy to explain that we hired someone with the required expertise and credentials. For those who were excellent candidates, the rejection letter is more difficult to compose, as it makes the decision seem arbitrary: i.e., you're great but you're not great.

And then there's the question of how to close the letter. I have personally hated (irrationally, I admit) the 'best of luck with your career' kinds of letter closings, but I can see why people use these as a way to lessen the abruptness of the closing of the letter. And of course in some cases the sentiment is sincere.

Has anyone ever received a 'good' rejection letter? If so, what was good about it?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Filling Class Time

One of the classes I'm teaching this term meets for two hours. Even though I have taught this class many times before, each time is different and each time involves a lot of preparation before class. As I prepare for each class, I veer between "How am I ever going to fill 2 hours of class time?" and "There is way too much material to cover in two hours."

My uncertainty about how the two hours will be spent stems in part from the fact that, ideally, much of the class involves participation by the students, most of whom are first year students. None of them have taken a seminar-style class before. Therefore, how much participation actually occurs depends a lot on class dynamics and my ability to encourage all the students to say something during class.

I also don't know what will capture the interest of each class. In some classes, the discussion just flows naturally because enough students are interested and ask questions, or I ask them questions that stimulate discussion. In other classes, I end up talking for more time than I want to or should.

It is easy to 'over-prepare' for a shorter class, especially a lecture-format class -- e.g., have in mind other topics to discuss or examples to go over or additional images to show. It is more difficult to do that for a 2-hour class, especially one with a somewhat nebulous format.

Walking to class this morning, I was frantically trying to think of additional topics to bring up should the discussion fall flat, but I needn't have worried. With very few exceptions, the students had a lot of interesting comments and questions, and I was very surprised when I glanced at the clock and saw that only 5 minutes remained of the class (just enough time to talk about the plan for next week).

Next week I will probably have the same pre-class anxieties about time, as the class dynamic is a complex function of the weather, time of year, weekend activities, success/failure of the local sports teams, and perhaps many other variables I do not want to know about, but so far so good.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Academic Spying

The New York Times has a front-page article today about couples spying on each other's email, webpage-viewing history, and cell phone use. This is non-news to most people, but what about academic e-spying?

The most serious incident I've had to deal with involved a postdoc's reading (and making copies of) my email and other computer files, but that was 7-8 years ago -- before computer security was taken as seriously as it is today. The postdoc (referred to in previous posts as 'the criminally insane postdoc') was fired, but because of that e-spying episode and another incident, my feelings towards internet communications can be fairly described as 'paranoid'.

I am not extreme about it -- for example, I am fond of internet shopping, and dozens of internet commerce sites have my credit card numbers stored on them. Furthermore, if I were completely paranoid, I probably wouldn't have this blog. When it comes to using the internet to communicate, though, I am less trusting. I suppose this is good in a way because it would discourage me from writing rude and salacious things in email messages, were I so inclined.

Some of my colleagues worry about internet security when sending or receiving reference letters. I have had a few students read paper copies of reference letters I had written for them (in one case this involved the student's opening a sealed envelope with my signature across the flap). And, as I've written before, sometimes people are shown their reference letters for tenure or promotion even when the letters are supposed to be confidential. Therefore, letters on paper are not necessarily more secure than electronic letters.

There are enough ways for academics to 'steal' (borrow) ideas and data without resorting to e-spying, so I imagine that such activities are mostly the realm of the crazies and the maliciously paranoid. But I could be wrong..

Friday, September 14, 2007

Science + Education = ?

A proposal deadline is looming, and I'm submitting two proposals. One is for equipment, and that proposal is straightforward to write, albeit a bit dull. The other one involves a project that merges science research with science education in a way that goes beyond tacking on some 'broader impacts' to a proposal that is 99.9999% science research.

The challenge is to write it so that it doesn't sound like either part is weakened by the other. The co-PI is a science education professor, and we have a record of collaborations that have resulted in science education publications, including teaching modules that are used in science classes. In theory, there should be no doubt that we can do the integrated research that we propose.

I think the proposal looks pretty good, but I am somewhat skeptical that it will fly, in part because it is hard enough to get any proposal funded. Furthermore, a previous proposal with some engineering colleagues was shot down by education experts because we came across as obnoxious. We got review comments like "Who do they think they are.." (writing about educational activities when they are just professors who don't know anything about education) and "Just because they build it, doesn't mean anyone will come." (how special: a sports analogy and an insult all in one).

I have those negative comments circling my head in cartoon thought balloons as I write this new proposal, but I think both aspects of the proposed work are very interesting, important, and feasible, so I see no reason not to try to get at least a pilot study going.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Model Student

Last year I wrote a few things about my experience of being a professor taking an undergraduate language course. This year I am taking the next level course of this language, with the same instructor and most of the same students, all women. The class meets 5 times per week, and a few times each semester we get together for social events, so by this time we all know each other fairly well. It is a harmonious group and we all feel comfortable speaking out in class, making mistakes, correcting each other, and asking a lot of stupid questions. [editorial opinion of a professor-student: yes, there are such things as stupid questions]

It is lucky for me that the other students are so nice, as the instructor persists in holding me up as an example of a 'model student'. If this were a less nice group of people, I would be loathed. Last year the instructor told the class that she was basing the class grading curve on my quiz scores because they were the highest in the class -- that is, she assigned each of my quizzes a grade of 100% and calculated the other grades based on that. It was therefore in the interests of the other students that I get more answers wrong. I felt that if I did really well on a quiz, I was harming my fellow students, and that's a terrible feeling.

I do not think it is very good professorial practice on the part of the instructor, but it must be strange for her to have a senior professor in her class of undergraduates.

Yesterday the instructor held up my homework assignments as the example of the way she wants them done. I know what it's like to grade a pile of disorganized or messy homework, and I do have that in mind as I do my homework. Even so, I would have preferred it if the instructor just described how she wanted the assignments done rather than using me as an example.

Aside from being embarrassing, the incident yesterday made me think about how being a teacher might help me to be a better student and how being a student now might help me to be a better teacher. That said, I really wish I didn't have a quiz tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

When Coauthors Go Missing

I need a break from writing about encounters with annoying/disturbing people, so today I will write about a routine academic issue.

On quite a few occasions, submission of a manuscript on which I am first author has been delayed – in some cases considerably – by a coauthor who is unable or unwilling to provide final comments and/or edits on the manuscript within a reasonable time scale. Each of these cases has been special in its own way, owing to variation in coauthor personality, urgency of the submission, and other factors.

What do you do, however, if you have to submit a manuscript by a particular time, but one or more coauthors haven’t signed off on it? In some cases, delaying submission of a manuscript will harm others involved in the project (e.g., students, postdocs) or have negative consequences for other research or for other papers or grants. It is unethical to submit a manuscript without approval from all coauthors, but it is also unethical to drop a coauthor who has significantly contributed to the manuscript. Is the best option to delay submitting a manuscript, even if other people’s careers depend on it?

I once gave a non-communicative coauthor a deadline, after which I was dropping him from the paper. I think it was a very reasonable deadline (2 months, after already waiting 6 months). He had contributed very little to the paper (no writing, no data, no ideas, just some logistical help at the early stages of the project), so I felt this was reasonable to do; in other cases, however, this would not be an option. He did not respond, I dropped him as a coauthor, and added him to the acknowledgments. The paper was accepted, and he was extremely angry.

This is a problem that has afflicted me for my entire research career, starting with a thesis committee member who wasn’t able to find the time to read my thesis. At present, I am rather desperate to submit a particular manuscript but am waiting (and waiting) for a coauthor to send comments or approval for submission. I am not going to drop this coauthor, or even threaten to do so, as he has been important to the project, but I am wondering how long to wait.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Science Lady Asked For It

A few months ago I wrote about a strange man who had been wandering into my office and acting in a disturbing way. He continued to appear at random times throughout the summer, in my department and in other science departments, and was seen stealing books. He pretended that he was my student or was working for me, and frequently asked people where I was and how to contact me. On numerous occasions when he made an appearance, I or others called the campus police, but he was never caught.. until today.

Today he showed up in my office and I sent off a quick 'call the police' email to a department colleague who checks his email every 8 seconds. The strange man left my office, and I wasn't sure if my colleague had called the police, so I called the police myself and they came quickly and apprehended the man. Because I had made the call to the police, I had to identify the man as the 'person of interest', and he started shouting at me that he hadn't done anything wrong and I had no right to call the police on him. The police issued him a citation for trespassing and let him go, then the police officer came to my office and proceeded to criticize me for how I have handled the situation.

First he told me that if I don't want to be bothered by people like that, I should keep my door closed at all times and only open it for people I know. He said "I don't think it will wear you out too much to have to get out of your desk chair from time to time and walk all the way to the door, ask who is there, and open it. Then you can return to your desk chair." Perhaps he has Issues with people who work in offices?

I invited harassment by provocatively leaving my office door open?

Then he asked me if I preferred to be listed on the report as "Dr." or "Professor". I said that it didn't matter, either was fine. He said "Ooooh, how nice for you to have all those titles." That was bizarre as well. This is a university campus and this police officer is a member of the campus police force. This place is littered with PhD's, and some of them are even women.

Then he said "If this guy has been bothering you since May, why haven't you called the police before?". I said that I had called the police before, as had many others in my department and other departments throughout the summer. He said that he had no record of this. I said that he could talk to the administrative assistant in the main office for a full accounting of the trespasser's activities, and he could also check with the Other Science Departments to find out what had been stolen from them. He replied "Yeah sure, me and my crack team of investigators will get right on it, science lady." Then he rolled his eyes and walked out.

Lest anyone think that my days are relentlessly grim and filled with people who insult and patronize me, I have had many fun and interesting interactions with colleagues and students, and a major paper that I worked on for years was published this week.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Tenured Troll

The last post generated many comments about how I should not be silent about rude and patronizing treatment from a colleague. I have not been silent, but neither have I been effective in changing the situation. The previous chair was a good friend of the troll and thought I was a whiner with a victim complex. The current chair just wants everyone to be nice and get along.

There have been no major consequences for Dr. Troll for his long history of obnoxious behavior towards women, although a long time ago his contact with female students was temporarily restricted owing to unethical behavior with undergraduate women. That is viewed by the powers-that-be as ancient history. Now when he makes an obnoxious comment and a woman objects, he says he is just joking. He once told me that I need to lighten up and get a sense of humor about his comments, and I assured him that I would laugh if he ever said anything humorous.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Professor Troll

This is one of those posts that wouldn't exist if I weren't semi-anonymous.

There is a certain very senior colleague of mine who is in a closely related field and who has zero research activity and zero visibility in our field and zero graduate students. He is, however, very aggressively patronizing toward me, routinely saying directly and indirectly that my research and teaching are flawed, misdirected, boring, and not rigorous. His refusal to consider retiring is very annoying, but his continued professorial existence is not entirely a negative. Other colleagues and I get a laugh out of the amazingly rude and obnoxious things he says, and the graduate students do a hilarious impression of him.

One of the courses for majors that I am teaching this semester has many of the same students as a course that he is teaching this semester. His class is just before mine and in the same classroom. Yesterday, he asked me what I thought of the students' collective mood at the end of his class and the beginning of my class. I said that their mood was generally positive. He then asked "And why do you think that is?". I thought of several possible responses, all of them rude, but then settled on what I believed to be true: "It's a really nice group of students who seem very engaged in their major classes." He said "I can think of another explanation." I didn't even ask what this was, knowing the explanation was inevitably coming anyway, but another professor listening to our conversation naively asked him to explain. The answer? Because they know the rigorous class has finished and they don't have to think much during yours. Maybe he's in a secret faculty troll club and he has to say things like that to stay in the club and earn troll merit badges.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


Among my favorite research projects of recent years has been a project that has been a team effort with a colleague. The work has been very interesting because there are a lot of fundamental questions to explore, and the collaboration has worked very well because of the different perspectives and expertise that we each bring to the project. I also just like working with this person. The project continues to evolve in new ways, in part because students are taking the work in different directions. This collaboration/project is a major reason I enjoy my work so much.

For some of our published work and conference presentations, my colleague has been first author and I have been second; for others, I'm first author and he is second.

Keeping all the positive things about this research and collaboration in mind.. every once in a while I am reminded that there is a tendency for some people to think only of my colleague when they think of this work.

An example: A friend at another university emailed me this week to tell me about a talk in his department by a researcher who referred to this work and used figures from our papers, but gave credit only to my collaborator when citing the source.

My colleague and I had planned to present posters together on new aspects of this work at a specialized conference later this year, but then he got asked to give an invited talk on the topic instead. My colleague is an excellent speaker, so the conveners made a great choice, but now I have to decide what to do. My first reaction was that I would just attend the conference without presenting anything, as the most interesting aspects of the research will be presented by my colleague in his talk. I hasten to note that my colleague always gives me credit in his talks for my part in the research, so I am not concerned about that issue.

Today he suggested that we both give the talk, each presenting part of the work. I didn't know what to say. It sort of makes sense to do it that way, just as we would have presented the posters together, but it would be kind of strange because he's on the conference schedule and I'm not. He was invited to speak; I wasn't. If we do a tag-team talk, I would be doubling the number of female speakers at the conference, albeit via the back door.

I need to think about it some more.

These recent incidents make me realize how unusual it is for two scientists to work as a team of equal collaborators. Perhaps in part because of this, when others think of our work, it may be instinctive to think of only one person as being the 'lead' investigator. To my knowledge, it has never happened that my colleague is the one overlooked, but I don't wish for that to happen. What I do wish for is that the results of our long-term, successful scientific collaboration will seep into the collective consciousness of people in our field to the extent that it will be unthinkable to choose one name over the other when discussing our work.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


The other day I was talking to a neighbor whose son just started kindergarten. This boy has been in preschool for years, but now that he is starting school, his mother is cutting back on her work hours so that she can be home when he gets out of school. The school provides after-school care/play, but she didn't want him to do that.

I thought it was interesting that she was decreasing her work hours now -- don't more moms go back to work or increase their work hours once their kids start school? What she is doing makes a lot of sense though. The local excellent preschool has full-day, full-year programs. Elementary school has a shorter day, LOTS of weekdays off (at least 1-2 per month, with no child care provided), and no classes in summer. It is much more challenging to balance family and work once your child starts elementary school.

I certainly didn't question her decision to start working part-time now. I consider those kinds of decisions intensely personal -- only she and her family know what works best for them, and I have no basis (or inclination) to judge. She volunteered the information, however, that her main motivation is that she hates her job. In that case, what she is doing makes perfect sense, but it is sad that she has a job she hates.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A Plethora of Alexanders

In my younger days, I found it easy to learn the names of all the students in my classes in the first week or two, but I find that it is getting more difficult as I get older. In my early years of teaching, I would know student names in a class of < 50 students within a week, and in classes up to 150 in a few weeks. [I have a colleague - who reads this blog - who learns the names of all students, even in classes with hundreds of students, but even in my youth I maxed out at 150].

Now it takes me a few weeks to learn 20-30 names. I think it is important to learn student names, and I am embarrassed if I don't know all the names in a class of < 30 after a couple of weeks.

I don't work any less hard at it than I ever have -- before and after the first classes, I study the enrollment lists and student photographs (though most students, especially seniors, do NOT look anything like their official photos). This certainly helps, but I don't really learn all the names until I have handed back 1 or 2 assignments.

It also helps that students tend to sit in the same seats each time. The fact that there are certain very common names is both a help and a hindrance to learning names. For example, this year there are four (4!) Alexanders in a class of about 20 students. This makes it difficult for the name Alexander to correspond to a particular face in my memory, but it increases my chances of being right if I call a random male student Alexander.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Travel: In the summer, I typically do a fair amount of traveling for professional and personal reasons, but this summer I was away more than usual. For example, I have been on the road for 6 of the past 10 weeks, and that was too much. Next summer I will organize things differently so that my travel is more spaced out, and I might say no to some invitations to participate in workshops and conferences if they require non-stop travel for weeks.

Research, writing etc.: I wrote several papers, revised several, reviewed a lot, edited a lot, and so on. Fortunately this type of activity can occur even during travel, though I wish I were the kind of person who could read and write in moving vehicles. I feel satisfied with my research progress overall, though once I started traveling in July, I was no longer able to get in the lab myself and collect data, and that was frustrating. I am teaching two classes this semester (and taking the intermediate level of the language class I started last year), so it might be a while before I get back in the lab for more than a few hours here and there.

Advising: Most of my students were very busy this summer and it was fun keeping track of their various activities and discussing (either in person or by email) their results and ideas. We will have a party later this week to celebrate that we are all back in the department and to welcome the new students and researchers in the group.

Outreach/Service: I did more of this than is typical for me in the summer. I don't regret the time, but I definitely didn't know, when I agreed to participate in some educational activities, how much time it would all take (i.e., weeks, including preparation time and travel). One of the organizers of the most time-consuming event said to me and another professor from a research university "Do you know how difficult it is to find people like you who would agree to do this?". I think it was meant as a compliment, but the other professor and I later discussed whether it really meant that we were just more gullible than our peers. When asked to suggest faculty to teach next year's workshop, we hesitated to suggest people we actually like [that's mostly a joke, but not 100%]. The rewards of participating were great, but the commitment of time and energy was immense.

Reading: The best books I read recently were "A Spot of Bother" (Mark Haddon) and "Number 9 Dream" (David Mitchell; I also loved his other books). The worst book was "Giraffe" (J.M. Ledgard).

So, despite being stuck on a long flight with nothing to read but a book whose first chapter is narrated by a giraffe fetus, Summer 2007 was pretty good. Things have turned around for me in terms of my department habitat owing to the new department chair and the continued presence of an excellent and fun colleague, and I feel much better at the start of the new academic year than I did at this time last year.