Monday, March 31, 2008

Students in (Mortgage) Crisis

My husband and I were very lucky that we bought our house years ago when housing prices were low and interest rates were reasonable, and we were able to get a nice house near campus. It helps me balance family and career to be able to get between home and work and my daughter's school quickly and easily, but if we were buying a house today, it is unlikely we could afford to own a house so close to campus.

Several of my graduate and undergraduate students have recently had their lives disrupted because their apartments were in houses or apartment buildings that went into foreclosure. Some have already had to find a new place and move, and some have to move within the next 1-2 months. When students move, it is typically in the summer, rather than during the academic year when they have very little time, so these unexpected moves have been extremely inconvenient for them.

Yet another student told me on Friday that he was going to have to move owing to his landlord's financial problems, and that as a result he might not be able to get as much work done as we had planned for April. This student is an undergraduate research assistant who is paid by the hour, so, unlike a graduate research assistant, if he doesn't work, he doesn't get paid. And if he can't work sufficient hours, I might have to hire someone else to make sure the most essential work gets done by a looming deadline that cares not for student housing woes, no matter how sympathetic I may be.

Even without the current mortgage crisis in the U.S., students are too often the victims of irresponsible or even unethical landlords, as I well know from my own experience with an avaricious, grasping, duplicitous, thieving scoundrel of a landlord when I was in graduate school. And now this. In addition to the problems that make the news, the mortgage crisis has generated a cascade of lost time and productivity that affects graduate and undergraduate students, and all those who work with them.

Friday, March 28, 2008

2 Out of 2 FSPs Recommend..

Recently I compared notes with another FSP about what we tell younger women who ask us questions about careers and families and so on. We have both done many panel discussions, pizza lunches, and other formal and informal mentoring/role modeling activities over the years.

It was interesting for me to talk with her about Science and other issues because she is one of the most prominent scientists in the world in my general field, is about a decade older than I am, is the mother of more children than I will ever have, and is a senior professor at a large and famous private university.

Other FSP (OFSP): Do you get asked all the time about when is the 'best time' to have a baby?
FSP (me): Yes, that always comes up at women-in-science panels and lunches.
OFSP: What do you say?
FSP: I say that there is no best time, so if you want to have a baby, you should go ahead, even if you don't have tenure or a tenure-track job yet.
OFSP: That's exactly what I say!

Conclusion: 2 out of 2 Female Science Professors think that women should have a baby when they are ready to have a baby.

FSP: Do you get asked all the time whether couples should pursue their careers even if it means a long distance relationship or whether one member of the couple should sacrifice their dream career so that they can live together?
OSFP: Yes, that always comes up as well.
FSP: What do you say?
OFSP: I say that everyone has to decide what is best for their own situation and there is no one solution that is best for everyone.
FSP: That's exactly what I say!

Conclusion: 2 out of 2 Female Science Professors think that each academic couple has to figure out what is best for them, after carefully weighing the options.

OFSP: Do you think it really matters what we say, or is it enough that we just exist as examples of women scientists with families and careers, just to show that it can be done?
FSP: I hope it is enough that we just exist, because I don't know what I am talking about most of the time when I'm asked to give advice.
OFSP: Me neither.

Conclusion: 2 out of 2 Female Science Professors are much better at doing Science than being Mentors, but we are trying.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

OMG You Don't Suck

This post is sort of inspired by yesterday's post by Dr. Shellie.

It occasionally happens that students will apply to a graduate program without really knowing much about it other than that there is some match with their research interests and/or the school has a good enough reputation that they might want to go there. It is difficult to have a good feel for working environment, research opportunities, and advisor-advisee interactions before actually visiting a place, and impressions of a department or potential advisor can change (for better or worse) as a result of a visit. Lacking the information and impressions gained in the course of a visit, it makes sense that a student might be initially inclined towards the more prestigious university, typically a Highly Ranked Private University (HRPU).

On a number of occasions over the years, prospective students have visited my research group, spent a day or two talking to people and checking out the facilities, and have been pleasantly surprised that they had such a positive experience.

That's nice, but it surprises me how direct some students are about expressing their surprise. Expressions of pleasant surprise range in tone and directness, but are typically along the lines of "I didn't think I'd be impressed at all [because you are not at a HRPU], but I was".

One such undergraduate who applied to the graduate program at my previous university, and who ultimately went to grad school at another university, became a legend among some of my colleagues because this student wrote such an intensely patronizing letter to the director of graduate admissions after visiting our department -- along the lines of "You may be interested to know that although your department is not in the Top 3, it's actually surprisingly good. I didn't think it would be, but after my visit, I realized that some fairly high quality research is being done in your department. I visited even though I wasn't seriously considering attending your school, but I was so impressed by my visit that I actually thought about it for 5 minutes before deciding to go to one of the Most Highly Ranked Private Universities in the world."

Aside from the unfortunate wording of her letter, which she might not have meant to be as patronizing as it sounded, the fact that she set up the visit thinking there was no way she would consider accepting the admissions offer, and thereby wasting everyone's time for 2 days, indicated a higher level of selfishness and immaturity than one would typically want to see in a student, however smart.

Oh well, it's all part of the fun of academia. My former colleagues and I still joke about that student and the famous letter.

I do not take the comments from naive students personally except in extreme cases, and will continue to attempt some fairly high quality research and to recruit energetic and creative graduate students. It gets easier once you've had an established research program for a while, but fortunately there are some students who are attracted to the possibilities and energy of being part of a new assistant professor's research group, and who are willing to forgo alluring offers from more established labs. I hope that will be the case for Dr. Shellie and others.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Do and Die

One of my colleagues was recently at a dinner party comprised entirely of Scientists, and, at some point in the evening, one of the Scientists asked the others the following question:

If you could make a pact with the Devil and become supersonically, cosmically famous -- of the order of magnitude of Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin -- within your lifetime, but on the condition that you die within 6 years, would you do it?

I wasn't at the party, but when my colleague told me about this, my response was "That's insane. Of course no one would make that bargain."

Au contraire. Some of the men at the party said they would make that bargain, including one man who has a young child and who claims to be an atheist (and therefore who presumably doesn't believe he would be able to enjoy his cosmic fame after his death). He later confirmed to me that he was serious about this and wasn't just being dramatic (or inebriated).

How bizarre. I hope his child doesn't ever learn his thoughts on the fame vs. family issue, and I wish I hadn't heard about this pact-with-the-devil party game incident. Knowing that this particular person would be willing to trade time with his family for stupendous fame has altered the way I think about him. I'm not sure why -- I've always felt that some of my colleagues and I are not of the same species as each other -- but now I am thinking we must be from different phyla.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Too Efficient By Half

When I was a grad student, my advisor had to decide whether to give a Research Assistantship to me or to another grad student. In an alarming moment of frankness, he told me that, although I had earned this RA, he was going to give it to the other student because he knew that I would get a lot of research done whether I was a TA or RA, whereas this other student would only make research progress if he were an RA.

I have thought about that incident from time to time over the years. When using precious RA money, sometimes you have to make a difficult decision about when and on whom to spend the money. Grants have a finite lifetime (even with a no-cost extension or two), and it is essential that the funds be optimized. Most PI's have had experiences in which RA funds did not result in much research activity*, even when students were not also taking classes or preparing for preliminary exams. Such experiences should be avoided if at all possible.

* Example: I once paid a student an RA during a term in which the ratio of wedding planning to research was something like 20 : 1. I am rounding up the second number to create a positive integer value.

One way to stretch grant funds is to give a student a 50/50 TA/RA split appointment in a particular semester. Reasons for a split appointment can include financial considerations related to grant budgets or a student's wish to TA a particular class (but not to teach as much as a full TA appointment).

I have found that, in general, motivated and efficient students will make excellent progress with their research whether they are a TA or not (or a split TA/RA), and less motivated and inefficient students will make no research progress while on a TA appointment and some progress while on an RA appointment. This is something my former advisor knew decades ago.

But would I make the same decision he did? Now that I've been advising students for a number of years, I can understand his decision more than I did at the time, and I also now understand why he told me the basis for his decision. I think that I would be very tempted to make the same decision he did, but in the end, I don't think I would.

Monday, March 24, 2008

How My Work is Going

Although my mother is not yet 70 years old, she has some symptoms of dementia as a result of a brain tumor and its surgical removal about 10 years ago, when she was in her mid-50's. Fortunately, hers is - so far - a rather high-functioning kind of dementia, and she is able to maintain an amazing level of activity, including a part-time job, community service, a busy social life, and travel.

My mother has been visiting this past week. Each time she visits, she tends to focus on one or two things that she asks about over and over, sometimes every few minutes, throughout the visit. The topics of these questions are different each visit. This time, one of her obsessively repeated questions has been "So how's your work going?". She doesn't expect or want more than a cursory answer, so I just say "It's going well", or, in moments of exuberance, "It's going very well." Once I reply, her mind skips onto another track completely and we talk about something else.

Tonight at dinner, after the third "So how's your work going?" and my usual reply of "It's going well", my mother paused and demanded: "How do I KNOW your work is going well?".

She had me there. How do I 'prove' to a non-academic, non-scientist that my work is going well? I know from conversations over the years that she is not impressed by my research topics or the numbers of grants or papers or awards she has never heard of -- nor should she be, but it doesn't leave much else for me to use as evidence. She has occasionally been impressed by some of the talk invitations I have received, but it perplexes her that on most occasions I am not paid (other than expenses) for these invited talks. How important can I be if I'm not paid to give talks?

I didn't want to mention talks anyway because she is annoyed that I will be missing the latest ceremony in honor of my brother's latest military promotion. Long ago, long before the ceremony was even a gleam in some admiral's eye, I had committed to giving a keynote lecture at an international conference that is scheduled for what became the date of my brother's promotion ceremony. I give so many talks, why can't I just skip this one? I don't know.. because I promised? because I'm the only woman giving a keynote lecture at the conference? because I want to be at this conference? because my brother has a promotion ceremony every few years? I will go to his next ceremony if at all possible. I said that about his weddings as well, and I kept my word. I skipped one, but I went to the next one. [admission: It can't be easy having me for a sister]

I decided to abandon all hope of impressing her with classic measures of academic success and to focus on what I love about my work. I told her that my work is going well because I am making some interesting discoveries and enjoying my research immensely. I told her about one such discovery that I had made recently -- something that I am very excited about. It will not surprise the perceptive reader that that was perhaps the worst route I could have taken in my quest to be convincing. I am sure that my so-called discovery must have sounded very lame to her, dementia or no. No one is going to make a TV movie about this discovery, and the cover of National Geographic also seems like a long-shot. And I may have made my mother even more annoyed that I am missing my brother's promotion ceremony just to give a talk about that.

No man is a hero to his valet (M. Cornuel). In my case, this would be: No woman is a successful scientist to her mother. (though I hope that is not true in general)

Friday, March 21, 2008

No Country for Old Women

In the latest episode of my continuing, angst-ridden saga of the search for the perfect set of Invited Speakers for an upcoming conference, I recently suggested to my colleagues that we invite a European FemaleScienceProfessor whose work I have long admired and whose research is perfectly in line with the theme of the session. I do not know her personally, and may only have met her once or twice, but I've read a lot of her papers. Also, I have heard her give talks before, and she is a very good speaker.

One of my colleagues, who is in a different field, was unfamiliar with her work. He told me that, although he respected my attempt to "help a young woman along by giving her a prominent spot in the batting order", .. he didn't like the idea. [<-- sports analogy alert!]

I was amazed that, based on no information other than the potential speaker's gender and country of origin/employment, my colleague assumed (1) that she is a young woman, and (2) that my primary motivation was to help out an early career woman scientist.

This was amazing to me because:

(1) This woman is at least 60 years old. She is a prominent professor at a major European university and has been for a long time. Her career needs no help from me. I realize there aren't many women professors in the physical sciences in Europe (see the European Commission's report "She Figures 2006" for all the facts and figures), but it was still a bit of a leap to assume that this woman had to be young.

(2) OK, I guess I shouldn't be amazed by the second point, especially since this colleague knows me fairly well. Even so, although I can imagine being motivated by the reason my colleague implied, I don't like that that is the default assumption when a woman suggests inviting another woman speaker. Even if this woman were an early career professor who would benefit from giving an invited talk at an international meeting, is it not possible that she would have interesting things to say and that it would be well worth hearing her give a keynote address?

Another colleague also stomped on my idea, saying that this woman was not as much of a "heavy-hitter" as some of the other people we could invite [<-- another sports analogy?]. Then he suggested inviting a friend of his. I know there's no "I" in team, but I really don't want to be a team player in this case. [<-- sports analogy!]

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Today a male colleague told me that he wished more women grad students had 'monomania' when it came to research/Science. What a thing to wish for.

This conversation made me wonder whether I was a monomaniac in grad school. I don't think I was, but it was a long time ago and I am not necessarily able to judge this myself. There have always been other things that are important to me in addition to my research, so I would be surprised if I was ever a monomaniac, sensu stricto.

You can work hard and be intensely interested in your research without being a monomaniac. I certainly don't expect monomaniacity (monomaniacness?) from my own students. Surely having a balanced life in grad school is a healthier way to be and better preparation for a happy life after grad school.

I've said it before many times: It's not the women who should change, it's the culture. No one should have to be a monomaniac to succeed. In my gloomier moments, I think that Academia won't change significantly until it becomes more diverse, but it won't become more diverse until it changes significantly, but it can't change until it becomes more diverse, and so on.

In a related conversation with the same colleague, he expressed some concern on my behalf today. I recently put together a collection of images that I created and that I hope will help students in some of my intermediate level courses. The image collection is available free in electronic form, but I also put the collection together in a visually stunning (well, aesthetically pleasing, anyway) form that can be printed inexpensively from a self-publishing site if anyone wants to have the collection in the form of a glossy printed book.

My colleague was concerned that if students went to this book publishing site to get the science book, they would see some non-scientific things I have on the same site. He thought I should have used different sites for my non-science and science writing. (Or maybe I should just write everything anonymously?)

It's not as if my non-science writing is embarrassing, or, at least, I don't think so.. (Maybe my colleague thinks so, though. Hmm). It's not as if I wrote obscene poems or thinly veiled descriptions of odious colleagues (the latter I do here, in my blog). Mostly it's just stories I wrote for my daughter. It didn't even occur to me to care if my students saw these stories. It's fine with me if they do, and then they will surely know that I am not a monomaniac.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Pulling Up The Ladder

In July 2006, I commented on the concept/myth of successful women who 'pull up the ladder' after themselves -- that is, women who are unhelpful (actively or passively) towards younger women trying to progress in their own careers. I wrote that I had not experienced this when I was younger, did not know any women in my field of academia who behaved this way, and didn't believe that it was as common a phenomenon as some had proposed.

There surely exist some women somewhere who behave this way, but I was (and still am) skeptical that this is a characteristic of women who succeed in male-dominated fields.

Nevertheless, in the past year I have seen some disturbing examples of women thwarting, or at least hindering, the careers of other women. This type of behavior always raises the general question of whether we should somehow expect more of women in positions of power, in academia or otherwise. That is, given the precarious position of women in science, do successful women have a responsibility to help other women succeed? (Successful is a vague term, but for the purposes of this discussion about academia, it could mean women who have tenured positions, or, to some extent, even women who have tenure-track positions).

All academics -- women and men -- have a responsibility for fostering the careers of students, postdocs, and younger colleagues, but each person will have a different capacity to be helpful depending on circumstances, personality, and so on. Do women have a responsibility above and beyond this?

I suppose it depends on what responsibility means and entails. For example, I think a woman can be an excellent role model just by being very good at research and all the other things that professors do, without any additional mentoring or other activities. A simple statement, then, of the responsibility of successful women towards women progressing through earlier career stages might be: At least do no harm (and if you can help more, that's great).

A related question is: If a successful woman actively thwarts the career of a younger woman, is that somehow worse than if a man does it? This question makes me queasy, but is one that I have been contemplating in recent months as I became aware of a few examples of women-thwarting-women at various US universities.

In one case, a female professor objected to an outstanding woman's being interviewed because the candidate had an infant and therefore couldn't possibly be serious about her career. Eventually, reason prevailed, the outstanding woman was interviewed, but she accepted another offer.

In another case, a woman on a hiring committee had a difficult time supporting female candidates who seemed a bit too uppity/aggressive, but had no problem with this characteristic in male candidates. Some of the men had the same reaction to the uppity women candidates, but reason also eventually prevailed in this situation.

It is depressing that these situations occur (and occur and occur), but at least this type of behavior is seen by many as unacceptable. I believe that as more women scientists succeed in academia (and I have to keep believing that that will occur), the culture will change for the better to be more accepting of women with a wide range of personalities and family situations.

Some professors don't intentionally pull up the ladder or thwart the careers of younger scientists, but their actions have that effect, and, as a result, their students, postdocs, and younger colleagues may give up trying to succeed in an academic career. This is the advice I give to women students who are having a hard time with advisors (male or female) who seem aggressive, mean, and unfair to them: If you love what you are doing but just hate the environment, don't give up. The academic culture has long selected for the personality type of your advisor, but it need not always be this way. Graduate and get a job and be part of the positive change.

If things do change for the better for women in science, it won't be possible for anyone to pull up the ladder because the ladder will not be some temporary movable thing, it will be firmly in place.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Wikid Stupid

Recently I was foraging for new online images to use in a lecture, and, as so often happens, I ended up on a Wikipedia page. On this particular page, some of the information for a rather basic scientific topic was incorrect to the point of being bizarre.

Did I correct it? No, I did not. Once upon a time I would edit incorrect information that I encountered on Wikipedia science pages, but a couple of years ago I gave up because every time I deleted or altered an obviously incorrect statement from an entry, the incorrect information would reappear very quickly. Additional attempts to edit the incorrect information always met with the same result: the incorrect statements reappeared.

These unfixable entries do not concern controversial topics or even matters on which there is some reasonable uncertainty. The entries I am discussing do not even involve popular topics of interest to non-scientists (e.g. penguins, planets). I am talking about basic facts that you would have to be aggressively ignorant to believe, much less to re-assert after being corrected. I only made changes on pages that were directly related to my research specialty.

This is not an anti-wiki rant. I think the concept is excellent, and surely Wikipedia overall provides more useful (and correct) information than not. I sometimes wonder, though:

Who are these people who create incorrect science entries and refuse to let them be improved/corrected?

Surely that goes against the wiki philosophy? When I look at the list of changes for pages I have been unable to correct, I can see that there is a rather small group of people 'guarding' these entries.

Ideally, my students would be able to look at a flawed Wikipedia entry on a topic we have discussed in the course, and see the errors. I haven't done that yet as an exercise, but it might be interesting to try.

Monday, March 17, 2008

A New Low

At the risk of being eternally negative (a.k.a. a whiner) about how I am introduced before an invited talk, I recently experienced something I hated even more than the other objectionable introductory remarks I have mentioned in previous posts. In this instance, the person who introduced me mentioned as the very first thing in his introduction that I am The Wife of Brilliant Professor X.

My spouse is in fact a Brilliant Scientist and I'm proud of him and -- in informal conversation -- I am happy to discuss him, our 2-career life, and his research.

Perhaps I wouldn't have minded the wife remark so much if it hadn't been the very first thing mentioned. Perhaps I wouldn't have minded if my wifeyness were mentioned in a "By the way, some of you might be interested in this factoid" kind of way, rather than "This is the first thing you should know about our speaker today."

With further apologies for being so negative about how I am introduced before a talk, here is my top-3 list of most loathed introductory remarks, with #1 being the one I have hated the most:

3. FSP killed her advisor.

2. FSP is The Best Woman scientist in her narrow sub-discipline of Science.

1. FSP is The Wife of Brilliant Professor X.

It's interesting that, of the 3 items listed above, the introductory remark I dislike the most is the only one of the 3 that is a true statement.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Real Professor

Today a graduate student in the English department asked me if I am a "real professor". It's not the first time I've been asked that, of course, though the episodes in which my realness is questioned have become more rare with time.

I wasn't offended, but only because the student seemed like a nice (albeit clueless) person. I suppose he was wondering if I am an adjunct/instructor or a tenured faculty member, but his choice of words had a rather high probability of offending no matter what the answer. A "real" professor could be offended that her realness was in question, and an "unreal" professor could be offended by the use of the term "real".

There must be better ways to ask this question, though perhaps none that involve a one word adjective modifying the word "professor".

I know nothing of the culture of English departments, but it would surprise me if this question were considered polite (as worded). Perhaps there is a more poetic, inoffensive, and/or mellifluous way to request this information from someone? I welcome suggestions from experts in phraseology, diplomacy, and dactylic hexameter, among others.

Example (from a scientist): What species of professor are you?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

I Had To Be There

Recently, I managed to get nearly an entire day's worth of machine time in a lab. This is a nearly impossible feat during the semester for various reasons involving the lab schedule and my schedule, but the stars aligned and I had a day in the lab. I was only able to do this, despite having 2 classes that same day, because my postdoc was in the lab the entire time and kept things going when I had to run to a class.

I spent part of the morning in the lab, went to class (in another building), and was on my way back to the lab when I ran into a colleague. I couldn't spend much time talking to him because of my rush to get back to the lab so I could have some time there before my next class. When he realized why I was rushing around (and skipping lunch), he remarked that I was a 'control freak' and should let the postdoc do the work. [This colleague was likely not entirely serious, but I think he was at least 82% serious -- he reads this blog and can correct me on this later, and if I am more than 10% off in my estimation of his seriousness, I will buy him a triple espresso.]

As I continued on my way to the lab, I thought about this. Why was I rushing back to the lab? Why was I spending the day running back and forth among 3 different buildings? The postdoc would of course be fine without my being there -- he is more proficient in this lab than I am.

The answer was obvious to me. Maybe I am a control freak in some ways, but the reason I wanted to be there in the lab was because I love the analysis process: devising a strategy, getting some results, thinking about them, making new decisions, discovering extremely interesting things.. Also, I was so excited about some of the results that we were getting that I wanted to be there when they were obtained. I wanted to see the results as soon as I could, and not wait to get a summary of them later.

I should say that this project is one component -- but not the main component -- of the postdoc's research. He has other projects on which he takes the lead, so I was not stepping on his toes by being in the lab with him. He is a collaborator on this project out of interest, and will get some additional co-authored papers for contributing his time and insights.

As I walked from the lab to the classroom where I was teaching in the afternoon, I was elated about the most recent results and I thought about telling the students about the research I was doing that day. I like to integrate some of my research in my teaching, and I knew that some of the students in that class would be interested in the day's results. That day, when I got to the class, I decided that I would not convey the news of my exciting results at that particular time, as I sensed some day-before-the-exam anxiety and I felt that it would insensitive if I started rhapsodizing off-topic about my beautiful data. There will be other opportunities, as I don't expect the thrill of doing Science to wear off any time soon.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Blind Loyalty

The recent incident in which a graduate student/instructor was (temporarily) fired from a job at Cal State-East Bay for not signing a loyalty oath that violated her Quaker faith -- but that was required for hiring -- resonated with a lot of us who have been faced with signing such a document. I was shocked to find out that I had to sign a loyalty oath for one of my professor jobs. As I learned after some research into the situation, some states requires a loyalty oath of professors at both private and state institutions. In my case, among the paperwork related to the hiring process was a loyalty oath in which I had to promise to "defend" or "uphold" or .. something .. the Constitution of the state. If I didn't sign, I would be fired before I was even completely hired.

I went to the department chair and said that I couldn't sign the oath unless I knew what was in the state Constitution. He sighed and said "It's just a stupid form we all had to sign. It doesn't mean anything." He said that every once in a while some professor made an ineffectual effort to get the oath-signing removed as a condition for hiring, but the oath yet lived.

I asked if there was at least a copy of the state Constitution lying around for me to read (this was before Everything was on the Internet). No, no one had a copy of the state Constitution. What if, by signing, I was promising to sing the state song every morning? What if I had to learn the state bird, flower, mineral, motto, fish, insect, seal and flag or risk arrest? What if this state invaded my home state -- was I promising to fight against my home state even though my mother was a state employee there and I might have to take arms against my own mother? The department chair just looked weary, as if some doubts about his most recent hire were creeping into his mind. I acquired a copy of the state Constitution, skimmed it, hoped that I hadn't missed anything too dire in the fine print, and signed the oath.

What a pointless process. The signing is essentially coerced -- you have already accepted the job, may already have moved to your new college/university, have started preparing (or even teaching) your courses, and then you have to sign something based on incomplete information (unless you seek it out yourself). Under what possible circumstances would my promise to defend the state Constitution be of any use to the State? Maybe I don't want to know. Maybe that's why most of us just sign the stupid oath form, whether or not we have read it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

In Control

When teaching at a university or college, how much are we 'in control' of the classroom environment and how much can we (reasonably) control? Much has been written and said by professors about the issue of cell phones ringing during class, and I believe there may have been a mention or two of students reading campus newspapers, listening to music, text messaging, playing Sudoku, and so on. In a large class, some of this kind of activity is inevitable. When I teach a large class (> 100 students), I don't worry about it as long as the ancillary activities don't bother the other students.

In a smaller class, these same behaviors become more difficult to deal with. They also become more rare, but they do still occur. In the language class I am taking, for example, one student checks her cell phone and sends text messages every few minutes during the entire class, even though there are only 7 students in the class. I try not to sit next to her because her constant fidgeting with the cell phone is distracting, and I frequently wonder what I would do if I were the instructor of that class. As far as I know, the instructor has never asked the student to put away her phone.

In a not-large class I was teaching today for a colleague who is out of town, a student sitting in the middle of the class was reading the campus newspaper. That didn't bother me, although I thought it was ill-advised considering that I knew that this student was failing the class, which is required for his major. (And yes, even though I was a substitute, today's material will be on the exam). What bothered me was that he was holding the newspaper vertically, so when I looked out at the class, I could easily read the newspaper from the front of the not-large room. I stopped my lecture, walked over to him, and said that it was fine with me if he read the paper, but he should hold the paper flat on the desk in front of him, and not upright. I said that I feared that if I got bored during my own lecture, I might start reading his newspaper, and that would be rude. Everyone laughed and he put the newspaper away.

A colleague of mine was recently severely criticized in her teaching evaluations because she asked students not to eat in the front row during class. She understood that some students work or have classes earlier in the afternoon and might not get to eat until this mid-afternoon class. She objected, however, to the loud crinkling of bags and the smell of potato chips while she was teaching, and preferred that students sit further back if they had to bring food to class. This was clearly viewed as an attack on students' inalienable right to eat potato chips in the front row during class. Maybe those students needed to be in the front row because they would have had a problem seeing/hearing the professor if they sat elsewhere, but they never said so. They said nothing, then wrote scathing comments in the teaching evaluation. It seems like this problem could have somehow been worked out amicably, but instead the situation just seems to have made everyone angry.

Anecdotes such as these make me wonder how much we (professors) are really in control of the classroom, and how much we can be. Do we have the right to ask (or demand) that someone put their newspaper away, or lay it flat, or not eat potato chips, or not check their Facebook page during class? Some of these activities are more disruptive than others, but if something is not really disruptive, but just annoying, what can we do?

I know that some professors include lengthy descriptions in their syllabi of what is allowed/not allowed in the classroom. The current issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses syllabus content, including this example: "Students are expected to arrive on time, not to leave early, not to wear caps inside the classroom, and to follow traditions of decorum and civility."

Thou shalt not wear caps? Can a professor really prohibit someone from wearing a cap just by saying so on the syllabus? I can't imagine putting things like that in my syllabus. How about this?: "You may read a newspaper in class, but you may not hold aforementioned newspaper at an acute angle greater than 20 degrees as measured from the horizontal."

I prefer to go the classic route: try to make the class as interesting and stimulating as possible, deal with any classroom issues with patience and humor, and not worry about the rest. Sometimes that philosophy doesn't work, but mostly it does.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Best Woman ..

In the past few months, I have given several invited talks at other universities. These trips have all been interesting and exhausting. Among the many interesting aspects of visiting other universities are: talking to lots of people, including students and other people I've never met before; learning about how different departments operate; seeing other parts of the country/world. Among the most random aspects of visiting other universities (not counting air travel and other logistics) are: whether I have a full schedule with a different meeting with a different person every 30-60 minutes or whether my scheduled activities consist primarily of my talk and maybe a meal; and what the person who introduces me at the beginning of my talk chooses to say in the introduction. At this particular moment, I am contemplating the latter (again).

Just over a year ago, I listed different types of Introductions for invited talks. Although I have particular ideas about the kind of introductions I prefer (in a word: short), I noted in the comments on that post that I prefer to gamble with introductions and not try to get too control freaky about what I want said and not said.

The one constant in an introduction is mention of where I got my PhD. Optional items include: place of origin, undergrad institution, postdoc institution, visiting professor position, first tenure-track position, awards and other ancillary things that go on the CV. I don't really care which of those, if any, are mentioned, though if some are noted, it's best if only some (and not all) are mentioned so that the introduction doesn't start to drag on too long.

Before one recent talk, my introducer (who has known me for 20+ years) said that I was "the most famous woman in the world" in my sub-field of science and "the best woman X" (where X = the name for scientists who do the type of science I do). Reasons why I flinched and felt like taking out his kneecaps when he said that:

1 - It is not true.

2 - It is an absurd thing to say in an introduction, even if it were true.

3 - Do I even need to say that I hated the gender qualifier in those statements?

I realize that my introducer was just being nice and trying to impress people in the audience who were from completely different fields of science, and he may even believe what he said (he knows me, he might not know (m)any other women in the field, hence I am the best and most famous.. to him). Even so, I wish he hadn't said it that way.

This problem with introductions is not confined to gender. Although it is very unlikely to hear in a talk introduction that someone is the Most Famous Man in his scientific field, or the Most Famous Vegan, or some other irrelevant descriptive term, a similar situation may arise when someone introduces a speaker from another country. I have heard speakers introduced as One of the Most Famous Scientists in Obscure Field from Small Country X. Slightly better but still weird is this statement: Professor X is not just known in his/her Small Country but is even known outside of it.

Instead of mentioning whether someone is a big fish in a small pond or a big fish in a cosmic pond or the third most famous female fish of the 5 known female fish of a certain species, it's probably best to just stick to the basic facts in an introduction, perhaps adding a personal touch/anecdote if you are introducing someone you know. Even if you admire the person you are introducing, it is difficult to convey that admiration without being obnoxious. And then if you start adding qualifiers.. it's an introduction to insult.

Friday, March 07, 2008


It's Friday, I've had a busy week, and I'm on the road, so today's post is Not Very Serious.

At a dinner party with several colleagues tonight, the talk turned at one point to how young my husband looks compared to most men his age (late 40's). I was very amused by this because for so long I was the one who looked younger than my age.

Now the youthful appearance of the MSP in the family is a frequent topic of conversation when he encounters friends from various stages of his life/career or even when he is talking to someone he doesn't know and they realize how old he is.

Friends now ask him "What's your secret?". I think this would be a great opportunity for him to mention something about how living with me keeps him young, but instead he typically says something about how his youthful outward appearance is compensated by how much his brain has deteriorated. Another idea of mine that he has thus far ignored is for him to concoct a substance in his lab and sell it on the internet as a Transformative Youth Tonic, thereby supplementing his grants with additional funds (note use of the T-word now so beloved by NSF).

It is cosmically unfair that my husband's youthful appearance is envied and in fact impresses people who think he's accomplished a lot for someone so 'young' when my (former) youthful appearance was mostly a problem for me.

It may be that his youthful appearance has some negative consequences, though. Our department chair was recently puzzled when my husband was passed over for an award because he was 'too young' and his turn for this award will come 'later'. I looked at the list of those getting the award this year, and there are other people of similar age to my husband on that list.

That ambiguous example aside, however, at the moment the situation is more entertaining than anything else, as long as he doesn't start looking younger than I am.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

About Time

Time is a perennial issue (<-- attempt at humor). How do we accomplish anything (or, at least, enough) in a job that could take infinite time, even if we didn't do anything else (e.g., spend time with other people, eat, sleep etc.)? The issue came up several times this week in the following ways: 1. I was, as usual, asked the oft-asked question: How many hours do you work/week?

2. A new assistant professor (with a minimal teaching and administrative load in his first year) asked: When do I get time for research?

3. A soon-to-graduate Ph.D. who already has a tenure-track position lined up asked: Now it gets easier because I can advise students who will do a lot of the work, right?

My answers to these questions, in reverse order to that listed above:

3. I don't know if it will get easier or not (it depends a lot on the person/situation), but it will not get easier for the reason stated.

2. You don't get time, you have to find time -- perhaps by an alchemical reaction that makes time out of non-time, but you have to find it somehow.

1. This is the most difficult question of the three to answer because I work a lot of random hours in addition to the standard work week. The short answer is: I work between 40-75 hours/week, but I rarely work 40 or 75 hours/week -- a 'typical' week, which probably doesn't exist, is somewhere in between.

At some point in my blog-past, I described our family system (instituted when the offspring appeared) in which I get 3 nights/week to do whatever I want (work, not work, do errands, sit in a cafe and compose haiku, make cat videos for posting on YouTube etc.), and my husband gets 3 nights/week to do whatever he wants (work). Also, if I so choose, I typically get some weekend time to work while my daughter is involved in various activities. Of course this system falls apart when one of us is traveling, but in general it works pretty well. If I need to, I can find a lot of extra time to get things done, or at least the 57 most essential things that need doing right away.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Talk v. Poster

Some scientific conferences are dominated by talks and some are comprised of talks + poster presentations. At conferences with talks and posters, it varies from conference to conference as to whether talks are more prestigious or whether it doesn't matter very much because there are so many posters, though of course it tends to be the case that talks are preferred. Big professors typically get talks, and students and other unfamous people get posters.

As it turns out, a colleague and I are both co-convening sessions at different international meetings later this year. At both of these meetings, talks are perceived as being significantly more prestigious than posters.

A few days ago, after organizing his conference session, my colleague said "The good thing about organizing a session is that I could assign myself a talk rather than a poster."

When my co-conveners and I recently organized our session, I didn't think I should assign myself a talk at the expense of other people who preferred talks over posters, so I assigned myself to the poster session.

I mentioned this to my colleague and he said "Well that's the difference between you and me." Then he told me that I had missed an excellent opportunity to promote myself and my work. I think I missed an excellent opportunity to be a jerk.

There will be plenty of women giving talks in my session, including some early career women, so I didn't feel that I needed to give myself a talk to ensure diversity of speakers. Also, poster presentations are a way to interact with more people and have extended conversations about your research.

Even so, I have been thinking about this for several days, and I guess it is bothering me. Where's the line between being nice and being submissive? Is this a classic case of a woman's failure to promote her research? I rather suspect it is. Two of my (male) co-conveners will give talks in our session, so I could have insisted on a talk rather than a poster. It just didn't seem like the right thing to do, though.

If I could re-organize the session today, I would do the same thing again. And I will have an awesome poster.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

After the Fall

A recent article in The Chronicle Review, “The Sweet Lure of Your Graduate-School Town” (2/22/08 issue), has been a topic of discussion in the part of the academe-o-sphere in which I orbit. In the essay, the author, Murray Sperber, proposes that many academics view the site of their graduate school days as Eden, and therefore choose to return to live in the vicinity of their old grad school when they retire.

The author of the essay spent most of his academic career in Indiana, but is retiring to Berkeley, where he went to grad school. It might be difficult to convince some people that this particular trajectory is evidence for a trend in academic society. To do so, it would be necessary to show that the opposite trajectory is likely as well – i.e. that Berkeley faculty who went to grad school in Indiana are longing to return there. Indeed, to support his hypothesis, the author mentions some academics he knows who plan to return to Indiana (site of their grad school days) after living many years in France.

If this grad-school-as-Eden-retirement-magnet idea is true, this is interesting. I can see why the place you end up as a professor might not be your ideal place to live – we tend to go where the jobs are, and most of us don’t end up living in our geographic location of choice. But why would GradSchoolVille be more Edenic than, say, the place where you went to college or did a postdoc or the place where you grew up or even some other random place you’ve never lived before but have always wanted to?

Sperber proposes that we long for GradSchoolVille (GSV) because when we were in grad school we were young, energetic, independent (perhaps for the first time), optimistic, and intellectually stimulated. After grad school, “.. we had to work at a demanding, often frustrating full-time job, usually devoid of the stimulation of graduate study.” In fact, I think that is a very sad statement considering the unequal distribution of time (for most people) between duration of grad study vs. academic career. Furthermore, I have found that being a professor is much more intellectually stimulating and rewarding than being a graduate student or postdoc.

According to the Sperber hypothesis, your postdoc year(s) could also be Edenic. You are still young(ish), intellectually stimulated, further on your career path, past the stressful exams and will-I-get-my-PhD stage, but not yet burdened with (too many) administrative tasks and other frustrations and stresses that come with a faculty position. Or perhaps the stresses of being a postdoc (and being in the will-I-get-a-job stage) negate any Edenic potential. I would not move to my postdoc town because I have unpleasant memories of being harassed there, an Eden-wrecking experience if there ever was one.

Nor is Eden a word I would associate with my grad school experience. However, it so happens that I went to grad school in a geographically excellent place, and I would love to live there again.

Despite my willingness to move back to my old GSV, I guess I’m not convinced that there are flocks of professors longing to return to their GSV. I have met very few who have made such a move, and am not aware that my grad school contemporaries long to return to our GradSchoolVille. It might be fun if we all did, though. We could move to a retirement villa in GSV and recreate our grad school days. To make the experience authentic, our rooms must be very small and lit by flickering fluorescent lights, squirrels and/or other rodents must die and rot in inaccessible sites between the walls, and we must occasionally be told that we are inadequate. It will be just like old times, but at least we will be living in a beautiful place.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Business or Pleasure?

When I travel out of the US to attend a conference or some other research-related event, I never know whether to check the box next to Business or Pleasure on the arrivals form on my return. Here is why I am confused:

FSP return to US #1, checked "Business" on form after attending international science conference: agent at passport control asks the purpose of my trip, I say 'scientific conference', agent says I should have checked "Pleasure" because no commercial transactions were involved. I get a stern lecture about the importance of filling out the form correctly and honestly.

FSP return to US #2, checked "Pleasure" on form after attending international science conference: agent at passport control asks the purpose of my trip, I say 'scientific conference', agent asks if this was part of my work or just a hobby, I say it was related to my work, agent says I should have checked "Business" because it was a work-related trip. I get a stern lecture about the importance of filling out the form correctly and honestly.

FSP return to US #3, checked "Business" on form after attending international science conference: see 'return to US#1' above for identical experience.

and so on.

Of all the difficulties and indignities associated with travel these days, especially compared to those experienced by non-US citizens traveling to the US, this is a trivial issue. Even so, I wish there were a box for "Non-commercial Business" or "Work-related Pleasure" just so I could avoid the stern lecture.

My husband never gets lectured or corrected no matter which box he checks, nor does another male colleague who just responded to my question about this, so perhaps I fit some profile for which the instruction for passport control agents is: "Give her a stern lecture".