Monday, June 30, 2008

Picture It

When I was first hired as a tenure-track professor at another university, the local newspaper did an article about me because I was an FSP in a place without many of them, despite the presence of more than one large university in the region. The article was accompanied by a photo of me surrounded by scientific-looking research equipment. I hated the photo, but I thought the article did a good job of explaining my research and why I find it so interesting. I also thought that it was in general a good thing to highlight the fact that women science professors exist.

Over the years, I've been in several other articles or projects whose intent is to show the world (or at least some people in a region) that there are FSPs. This might sound contradictory coming from someone who writes a blog intended for that same purpose, but a recent request for my participation in yet another one of these things made me feel sad, weary, and angry that I am still so exotic, 20 years later, that these believe-it-or-not-FSPs-exist projects are still being done.

My husband, who has never been asked to be interviewed or photographed as a Scientist, asked "Aren't you glad you're still special?" (<-- sarcasm).

Being photographed surrounded by Scientific Things again is getting boring, but I can think of a few other dramatic possibilities. How about if we FSPs are photographed surrounded by our numerous male colleagues, department chairs, and deans? How about if we are photographed doing menial service tasks that our male colleagues can't or won't do? How about if our photographs have captions like "I can't believe she's a real professor!". How about if my photograph and article from ~ 20 years ago is juxtaposed with a more recent one, with the same headline about what a rare creature I am.

I am not (entirely) serious about these alternate suggestions, of course. These FSPs-exist projects are well intentioned, and while clearly not sufficient motivation to inspire swarms of young women to become (and stay) scientists, it would be nice to think that someone somewhere is somewhat encouraged by this evidence for the existence of FSPs.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Science Performance

Last year, I wrote about a team of Chemistry professors and students who did a show at my daughter's school. This year it was a group of Physicists, and they did a similarly spectacular job of entertaining and teaching.

Just when I think I can no longer be entertained by seeing a banana or a balloon immersed in liquid nitrogen, I see one of these shows and am amazed. I am not amazed by the experiment itself (though fortunately the kids are), but by the energy and charisma of the scientists and the way that they explain things in a simple, clear, interesting, and fun way. The outreach work that these scientists do is extremely important.

I have the greatest respect and admiration for scientists who 'perform' for school kids and others, spreading the word that science is fun and interesting and blasting apart the stereotype that all scientists are quiet, strange men who never leave their labs.

The chemist who did the show last year is a woman (though not a full-time professor). This year, the lead scientist was a male associate professor, but he brought a group of students, including one female student. I am glad that the kids who saw both shows will have seen both men and women being Scientists, and, with all due respect to the women who do this important work, I am glad that elementary school outreach programs are not entirely the domain of part-time female adjuncts. My cynical bias, which arises in part because I happen to have my GENDER LENSES on (again), is that this type of activity will only be valued if Male Science Professors are active participants as well.

The essential element of putting on a successful science show for kids (or anyone) is to have the right personality and the ability to explain the science clearly. I do not have the personality or voice volume for this kind of high-energy science outreach. I have on occasion given short talks or told a story to an elementary school class, but these tend to be low-key events involving discussion, conversation, and only occasional goofiness.

I don't do these school visits to get outreach points on my annual report -- talking to kids about science has its own rewards, and I of course especially like visiting my daughter's class and school. It's a good thing that I don't need the 'credit', though, because volunteering at a school is something that moms are just expected to do. When my husband visits the school, he is treated like a celebrity who is doing something very special -- taking time out from his busy day of important work.

Even so, whether the scientist is low-key me, an exotic dad, or a charismatic physicist playing with dry ice in the gym, I think kids should see and get to know scientists and Science.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Most Bizarre Thing So Far This Week

Does a week ever go by without some random, bizarre occurrence? Would life be boring if these things didn't happen, even if some of them are annoying?

This week's example:

I was sitting at my desk, and my office door was open, as it almost always is when I am in my office. A young man walked into my office and started talking to me, without any introduction. My first thought was that perhaps I am losing my mind faster than I think I might be -- perhaps I have met this person and just don't remember? Perhaps I am supposed to know this person? But no, it became apparent during the conversation that we have not met before.

Random Young Man (RYM): An International Scientist [names person I have never heard of] will be visiting in July for a few days and would like to start a collaboration with Scientists here. Are you interested in working with him?

FSP: That's hard to say without more information. What is his specific field of research?

RYM: I'm not exactly sure, but he has done some work on X [names research field that is not even remotely related to my research].

FSP: In that case, no, but there is another department at the university that does research in that field. Perhaps you can find someone there who would be interested in meeting this scientist.

RYM: So you're not interested in working with International Scientist? He is coming a long way and he really wants to collaborate with scientists here.

FSP: No, I am not interested in working with him. From your description, there is no overlap whatsoever in our research interests.

RYM: So you never work on anything outside your narrow field of research?

FSP: No, never.

But I apparently do sit at my desk just waiting for random people to stop by and ask me to do random things, and then insult me when I refuse.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Ivory Tower Basement, continued

This post is a continuation of yesterday's, in which I discuss an article in the June issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

A main point of Professor X's article, "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower", is to discuss the implications, including the "morality", of admitting students to classes that the students are apparently incapable of passing. This is a fascinating topic because it gets to the heart of some cosmic societal issues related to who can have, should have, and/or must have a college education, and what makes a course or experience 'college level'.

Students who have poor reading comprehension and/or writing skills cannot pass Professor X's introductory-level writing and literature classes. Despite being angst-ridden about the subjectivity of grading student papers, Professor X has a specific set of standards for what is required to get a passing grade on the assignments in his class, and some students cannot meet those standards. We could argue about whether his standards are too strict, but I'd rather keep this discussion more general.

Professor X points to the supposed financial gain for a college if a student has to take a course over and over, prolonging the time during which the student is enrolled at the college, and he mentions that administrators at his colleges don't seem to care that many of the students in his classes fail. Issues such as these provide some of the motivation for asking whether it is ethical to continue teaching students who fail. The question is particularly relevant to Professor X's colleges, which he describes as "colleges of last resort".

Professor X writes: "We [Americans] are not comfortable limiting anyone's options." That describes how I feel about the issue. If the alternative is to limit access to college classes, that is more disturbing to me than the situation in which students fail the same courses repeatedly. It's bad enough that some students don't have access to higher education owing to lack of ability to pay the tuition, fees, and other costs. Various colleges have various admissions standards, but I think there should be some colleges that accept anyone who is able to meet the most basic requirements of class participation, in person or online.

Earlier this year, I was traveling in a country that has long had excellent universities in its major cities, but is trying to expand and strengthen its higher education system in smaller cities and other areas. This is controversial, and a widely expressed opinion in the urban universities is that this expansion is a mistake because the regional universities won't be any good; the faculty will be mediocre and the students will be those who aren't good enough to attend the elite universities.

Broadening the university system sounds like a good plan to me. Why not increase access to higher education? The elite universities won't be harmed -- no resources are being taken from them -- and people who for various reasons can't attend the elite universities will get a university education. I like the organization of the U.S. system, in which there are many options in terms of university/college size, programs/emphasis, location, and admissions standards.

There will always be some students who can't succeed at the 'college level'. But is it immoral to let them try (again and again)? It is immoral if the educational system is dysfunctional and consists primarily of an accounting office to take your money so you can hurl yourself at impossible tasks taught by an implacable instructor.

If, however, a student makes a good-faith effort to pass a class, if the college has educational resources to help struggling students, and if the instructor makes a good-faith attempt (within the limits of what is reasonable in terms of time and effort) to help students succeed, it would be immoral to limit someone's access to a college education on the basis of their being unable to write a research-paper "grounded in history" (as required by Professor X).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Basement of the Ivory Tower

The June issue of the The Atlantic Monthly has an interesting article, "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower", written by anonymous Professor X, who is a part-time adjunct instructor at two colleges that he describes as "colleges of last resort".

There are of course major differences between Professor X's experiences teaching as an adjunct instructor of introductory writing and literature classes at these colleges (in one case, a community college) and my experiences as a tenured professor of science at a research university. There are, however, fewer differences than Professor X supposes, at least in terms of how we interact with students.

A few examples:

The Students. Professor X introduces his students by comparing them to their extreme opposites -- the 18-22 year old students at elite colleges or universities. When I read the article, however, his students seemed familiar to me. I thought: I know students like that.

Professor X's students did not spend years preparing for college. They did not spend their high school years working with tutors to prepare for standardized tests, they did not do extracurricular activities specifically designed to help their college applications, and so on. In fact, most students don't. Perhaps the hyper-prepared student trying to beat the odds and get into an elite school is the type that gets the most press, but the nation's public universities are populated by students who had a different experience.

Although most of the undergraduate students at my university are in the 18-22 year age range, I seldom teach a class in which every student is between 18 and 22. Some students are returning to college after years spent in a job, in the military, or raising kids. Most students work at least part-time, and some are paying their own way through school by working. Most are from the state in which the university is located. The difference is one of magnitude. Most, if not all, of Professor X's students are so-called 'non-traditional' students, whereas these students are in the minority at most universities.

Professor X's students are attending college because of a requirement for their jobs. Most don't want to take his classes, but they have to take them. I think that Professor X's description of teaching students whose life experiences, interests, and expectations are very remote from the subjects of his classes will feel familiar to anyone who has taught an introductory level class at a big university. I can certainly relate to the experience of teaching a class that is largely comprised of students who don't want to be there but have to take the class for a requirement. The experience can be both fascinating and frustrating.

Grading and grades: subjective /objective. Concerning grading and grades, Professor X has a 'grass is greener' complex, and is, alas, seriously in error.

Professor X writes: "How I envy professors in other disciplines! How appealing seems the straightforwardness of their task!" He mentions the "psychic ease" of multiple-choice tests ("Answers are right or wrong."), and gives an example of a hypothetical biology professor who just wants some memorized facts repeated on an exam.

Au contraire! Scientific concepts are not so easily distilled into memorized vocabulary words, and multiple choice tests can be ambiguous, at least according to the students who take them. The questions might be poorly worded. The array of possible answers might be designed to 'trick' the students. The answer key might be wrong. I have never felt the aforementioned "psychic ease" of giving (or taking) multiple-choice tests. I prefer other types of tests and assignments, which have their own issues, not so different from what Professor X describes in reference to grading papers.

Grades and grading: failing students. Professor X's students ask him to change failing grades to passing grades because they need to pass in order to graduate or get a tuition reimbursement or just because they worked "really hard". Who among us has not experienced this? I have encountered this everywhere I have taught, from an elite small liberal arts college to a big state university. A variant on the request to change an F to a passing grade is the request to change a passing grade to a higher passing grade, as some things depend on the student's maintaining a certain grade point average (e.g. scholarships; academic probation stipulations; eligibility to participate in sports).

A difference, however, is that Professor X fails many more students/class than I ever do. I would find it wrenching to fail so many students (see next section).

Grades and grading: emotional detachment of professors. Professor X writes: "The full-time, tenured professors at the colleges where I teach may .. feel comfortably separated from those whom they instruct. .. Professors can fail [younger/traditional college students] with emotional impunity because many such failures are the students' own fault: too much time spent texting, too little time with the textbooks."

I know not this "emotional impunity" of which he speaks, and do not find it any easier to fail younger students than older students. Even when I teach a large class and assign an F to a student who never/seldom attended class and who missed one or more exams, I wonder what will happen to that student. What is going wrong with their life that they can't attend class and/or can't manage their time and don't know how to get help in time? What will happen to this 18 (or 19 or 25) year old if they flunk out of school? And so on. I am clearly a failure at "emotional impunity", and I am by no means alone in not feeling "comfortably separated" from those I instruct.

Professor X has a difficult job: he teaches at two different colleges without job security. I only spent a year as an adjunct/visiting prof, and the lack of respect (and compensation) from my college was staggering considering how hard I was working. In many ways, to be a tenured professor is to live in a different world.

In some ways, though, we are not so different. Some student behavior is universal no matter what the age and life experience of the student, and some of us professors may not be so different either. The emotional aspects of interacting with students, grading them, and passing or failing them have many similar elements whether we are teaching literature or science, and whether we are teaching at a "college of last resort" or at a research university.

Note: This post became rather long, so I am dividing it into two parts, the rest to appear tomorrow, when I will discuss the more cosmic issues raised by Professor X regarding the 'morality' of teaching students who can't do college-level work.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Mine Mine Mine

After many years of having a logistically awkward situation with respect to my lab space, I finally convinced the new department chair that a more conveniently located lab that has been used to store junk for more than a decade would be well used by my research group. It is not a large lab, and it would not be desirable for most other research groups, but I have some low-tech activities that are perfectly suited for this smallish space.

This lab is now officially assigned to my research group, and in our few weeks of occupancy, we have already made good use of the space. Certain research activities are now much easier to accomplish efficiently, and it is easier to involve undergrads in research projects.

My other lab space is in a rather remote location and has its own set of keys that can only be acquired by filling out permission forms obtained from a difficult-to-find person who lurks in a basement office at random times. The new space is in the main department building, not far from my office, and can be accessed using a master key that all faculty, postdocs, and grad students have.

A colleague recently told me that a postdoc in another research group has been using my new lab and some of my equipment. This postdoc has not asked permission and in fact I have never even met him. I have not yet encountered him in the lab, but he always cleans up perfectly and he doesn't use any of the lab consumable supplies.

If he asked my permission to use the lab, I would readily grant it. So why does it bother me that he is using the lab without my permission? Am I more territorial than I had realized?

With my primary lab space, I limit access to those who have had the required safety training, who know how to use the materials and facilities, and whose key-permission forms I have signed. I am not aware of anyone who has used those lab facilities without my permission.

It's important to know who is using the lab for the simple reason that I am responsible for the people and the facilities. I once banned a Ph.D. student (not mine) from ever stepping foot in my lab again because he had repeatedly violated lab safety rules and because he was such a slob that he was causing problems for others who were also doing work in the lab.

Owing to that incident and a few other more minor ones, I know that I need to be generally aware of what is going on in the lab, and who is doing what.

And I feel territorial. I do not feel territorial with every molecule of my being, but the sentiment is lurking in there somewhere.

Furthermore, I do not believe that this postdoc would use, without permission, labs supervised by most (any?) of my colleagues. For some reason, however, he feels he can use my lab space without so much as having introduced himself to me.

Yes, I will talk to him, and no, I will not go nuclear on him and ban him from my 'territory' because he offended me by not asking permission first. If situations like this continue to arise, however, I am changing the locks.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Tell Me About It

For some conferences, I end up being a co-author on a number of abstracts/articles/proceedings because I am involved in various collaborative projects and am working with current and former students who are writing abstracts on research in which I am closely involved. The number is not huge for any one conference, but even so, it can be hard to keep track of who is writing what and whether my input is needed in a minor or major way. Typically, the first author will send a draft of the text to co-authors for comments, and that's how I figure out what, if anything, I need to do to help.

My comments can range from none to numerous, depending on the topic and first author, but if something has my name on it, I almost always want to see the text before it is submitted for review and possible publication. The one exception involves abstracts written by a particular long-time colleague, but even in that case we almost always discuss abstracts we are co-authoring.

On a few occasions, someone has submitted a really bad abstract with me as co-author and has not sent the text to me in advance.

A bad abstract is one in which the text is (a) wrong, and/or (b) poorly written. In one case, by the time I saw the bad abstract, it was too late for me to do anything about it. I wasn't the advisor of the student who wrote the bad abstract, nor even at the same university, but it wouldn't have mattered; the advisor didn't see the bad abstract in advance either. The student explained that no one had ever mentioned that co-authors should be given a chance to see and comment in advance on items submitted for review.

I was very angry. Only with great difficulty did I restrain myself from sending the student a sarcastic list of other common sense things that one should do.

In a more recent incident, a former student -- who does not write well and never has -- submitted an incoherent and error-filled abstract with me as co-author. We spent many many years trying to solve his apparently intractable writing problems, but he clearly didn't even run a spell-checker before submitting the abstract. Was that overconfidence, laziness, or delusional behavior? I don't know, but the problems went deeper than just spelling errors; some of the statements and conclusions were bizarre.

It is fortunate in that case that I was able to see an online list of abstracts on which I was listed as co-author, and I took a look at this one, as I was surprised to see that it had been submitted without being shown to me first. I was then able to upload a revised and corrected abstract before formal review. Hypocritically, I did not consult the first author when I made the revisions. [Yes, I did consider just removing my name, but the work was based on my idea and my work and a paper I had published, so I didn't think that was a reasonable option.]

Am I being a perfectionist and a control freak? My opinion: no on one and yes on two, though regarding my control freakiness, a more accurate term is
quality control freak. I don't really think my reputation for good science and writing would be damaged by a lousy (co-authored) abstract every now and then, but I'd rather avoid the experience if possible.

I previously wrote about a situation in which a highly flawed manuscript was submitted without my seeing the submitted version, and that was very embarrassing. The manuscript was rejected and was never resubmitted in improved form, and now the project has moved on without me. Because the first author, a former postdoc, screwed up, I probably lost my one chance to be part of a publication for a project that I helped initiate.

I have another colleague who tends to submit manuscripts after receiving what my co-authors and I think of as an initial round of comments, expecting to see one more version before final submission. Fortunately the submitted versions have been pretty good, so I have been more startled than upset by his precipitous submissions.

Quite often I review or edit a manuscript that has a co-author whose work I respect and know to be of high-quality, but who cannot possibly have read the manuscript submitted for review. I know we are all busy people and some people publish a lot, but I can't imagine
knowingly letting a manuscript/abstract with my name on it be submitted for review without my having approved the final version, or at least the penultimate version that only needs minor technical changes.

A situation of exactly this sort came up just this week. I was asked to fix the English in a manuscript whose first author is not a native English-speaker. I could not help but notice, however, that every co-author is from the UK, so I asked the first author why my help was needed. The answer: the co-authors
refuse to take the time to read the paper, but are insisting that their names be on it anyway.

In the recent case of the bad abstract submitted by my former student, he has more at stake than I do. He is an early career scientist; this is not a time to be careless with work submitted for review.

A colleague with whom I discussed this situation told me I should let my former student make his own way and succeed or fail depending on his ability to do good science and communicate, or not. That is, perhaps I should not have intervened to fix the abstract and should have let it be reviewed in its original submitted form. I agree with that advice in general, but in practice, it's easier said than done, especially with a former student and especially if I am a co-author.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Worst Insult

In the 20 June Chronicle of Higher Education, Jerome Neu, a scholar of insults, was asked how academics insult each other. The (vague) answer had to do with subtle insults about intelligence and "other things that may not be such points of pride elsewhere."

Does the fact that I don't know what those other points of pride might be mean that I am stupid? Go ahead and insult me, just be subtle about it, please.

In fact, I can make some educated guesses about the academic PoP's. Perhaps those points of pride involve the number and funding level of your grants; the value of your h-index; the impact factor of the journals in which you publish; and the ranking of your department/institution. I can think of others -- e.g. the quantity and quality of your honors and awards; the presence or absence of a personal administrative assistant; and/or the make and model of the espresso machine in your office -- but these might not be quite so specific to academia.

For those in the humanities, there are probably all sorts of subtle insults one can attempt based on the prestige of one's book publisher or the number of digits in one's sales rank.

Sometimes the gender, seniority, and other characteristics of the insulter dramatically influence whether a particular insult is effective.

Last year I had the evil pleasure of watching my most obnoxious colleague be verbally eviscerated by a not-subtle insult at a faculty meeting. If I had made the exact same statement, my colleagues would have labeled me as hysterical and mean, but it was devastating and effective coming from a distinguished senior colleague (who has several offices, an administrative assistant or two, lots of grants, and who recently won a major award).

The obnoxious colleague, previously described in this blog in the context of his offensive behavior towards women faculty and students, had been given a position of responsibility, and was poised to wreak havoc on some important aspects of the educational mission of the department. He presented his ghastly plan, and a few of us started to object to certain features of it, but our objections were swatted down. Then the Distinguished One proclaimed to the Obnoxious One:

You have a 19th century view of science.

And that was enough to kill the plan.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Free Labor

Every once in a while, a non-student will send me an email asking if they can do part-time work with my research group, not for money but just for the experience. In some cases these 'volunteers' are people who have an undergrad science degree and who took a job in the area and are now thinking about applying to grad schools. In some cases they have been scientists who move to the area for family reasons and want to stay involved in research somehow.

In the past I have agreed to this type of arrangement. In the case of volunteers with a B.S. or M.S. degree, my thought was that it was a chance to encourage someone with an interest in science and it was a chance to check out a prospective grad student. I tried to find projects that didn't require constant close supervision over long periods of time and that would be cool to do, but that weren't essential to do. That is, if the project got done, that's great and the results could be interesting, but if the project didn't get done (or didn't get done well), it wasn't a disaster. A good volunteer project also should not involve anything too sophisticated in the way of technique or equipment, or the training (including safety training) becomes much too involved. In the case of more senior scientists, I have suggested projects that were part of a larger, ongoing investigation but that could lead to publications and/or proposals for taking the research in new directions.

It can be hard to find projects that fit those criteria, no matter what the experience level of the volunteer, but it is not impossible.

The concept of a volunteer researcher might sound nice in the abstract, but I have found that it is not worth it to have research volunteers, and I am no longer agreeing to these arrangements. The cost-benefit analysis (in which 'cost' also involves time spent helping the volunteer) is different than for an official student or postdoc, and I have found that the time, expense, and aggravation involved has not been worth it compared to the supposed benefits for the volunteer and my research group.

In addition, my mistake in the past was assuming that someone who was willing to volunteer must have a deep desire to be immersed in research and an academic environment and must also be someone who is motivated and sincere. Perhaps I have just been unlucky and there are others out there who have heart-warming stories about a volunteer who used the experience to do interesting research and launched into further successful scientific study or work. Surely there are motivated high school students who want to do research, or retired Nobel Prize laureates who want to stay involved in science by volunteering their expertise to various research groups. OK, maybe not, but I hope that there are positive examples even though that has not been my experience.

I realize that by refusing to take on volunteers I might be passing up a chance to help someone who really does have a sincere interest in research and just needs a bit of experience and encouragement. That may be so, but my most recent negative experience with a volunteer is still too recent for me to want to become involved in such an arrangement any time soon.

I still get email from time to time from potential volunteers, and it always seems slightly crazy to me that I am turning down 'free labor', but I have to remind myself that it isn't really free and that the labor in many cases is mostly my own.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Moms, Jobs & Fun

The other day, my daughter and I were walking and talking.

Daughter: Do you remember when I did that profile of you for Mother's Day for a school assignment?

Me: Of course I remember. You drew a picture of me and you wrote a very kind of description of me and my life. I especially liked the part about the "laugh lines".

D: When we were writing about our moms, our teacher told us to stop writing so much about our mother's job. She said that was boring, and we should write instead about our mother's hobbies and what our mom did for fun because that was more important.

Me: What did you think about that?

D: I thought it was stupid so I ignored it.

Me: Why? Because I don't have hobbies?

D: You have hobbies, they are just strange hobbies, but that's not why. I told my teacher that you love your job and so it is an important part of you. You do your job for fun, and so it's not just a job, and I wanted to write about that.

Me: What you wrote was great. I wonder why your teacher thought that mother's jobs weren't interesting or important to write about. She clearly loves her job, and she's a great teacher.

D: Yeah, it was weird.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Except One

In the pile of things lurking in my mailbox upon my return from my travels were my teaching evaluations for last term. I am always curious about what I will find in my evaluations. I had an overall positive feeling about my class last term, but there are some things you don't know about how students perceive a class until they fill out the evaluations.

In the evaluations for my class this time, every student except one said that they learned a lot. Every student except one said they would recommend my class to others. Every student except one said that they would recommend me as an instructor. Every student except one said that I treated students with respect, was approachable, gave timely feedback, was organized, and so on.

I know which student hated the class. This student was unremittingly rude throughout the entire academic year. Is it better to know in advance that at least one student hates your class, or is it better if you don't know until you read your evaluations? Neither is good, of course, and in this case, knowing in advance that this student hated me and my class did not help us resolve the situation, and made for some unpleasant moments throughout the year. The student was unwilling to consider that the problems stemmed from anything but my failure as a teacher and a person, and attempts at friendly conversation went nowhere.

My initial hypotheses were that (1) the student had trouble learning in a classroom setting and expressed this frustration in some unpleasant ways; or (2) the student was having problems outside school, and these were of such severity that the student's academic life was also affected. Hypothesis 1 was discounted by various lines of evidence, and I was never able to figure out much about hypothesis 2 except that this student did not display rude behavior in every class, leading me to revise my hypotheses to consider data related to the student's selective rude behavior.

The data: out of six professors in my department, the student was blatantly rude and disrespectful to three, and polite and respectful to three. Call it a coincidence if you will, but the three of us in the hated category are female, and the professors in the respected category are male. I considered the possibility that the male professors were oblivious to some of the more subtle aspects of the rude behavior, but when I described some of the more dramatic examples, it became clear that this student behaved in a different way with different faculty and had been doing so for a long time.

I've learned over the years that you can't please every student in every class. Perfection is not possible, and it's a moving target from class to class depending on the students, class size, fall vs. spring term, topic/level of class, instructor energy level, and no doubt a long list of other things. You can't spend too much psychic energy being upset about one unhappy student in a class that otherwise seems to have been successful.

Even so, it's hard to write off a student, even an unpleasant one, even a sexist one. This student has now graduated, and will likely continue being rude to women in authority positions and polite to men. I regret that the student's time at the university, including a year of classes with me, made no apparent dent in a rather twisted world-view.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Ivy League of the Whatever

Every so often, one hears a current or former student of a non-Ivy League school refer to their college/university as being part of the "Ivy League of the ..." [fill in the blank with geographical term other than "East" or "Northeast" -- e.g. West, Rocky Mountains, Dakotas, -- or the name of another country/continent or another descriptive term*].

I personally do not know of any circumstances in which this has produced the desired impression, which presumably is something on the order of "You may not know much about my school and may not even have heard of it, but it is a really really good school and you should be impressed." It may well be a (very) good school, but if someone isn't familiar with it already, there's not much you can do at this point.

Another inadvisable approach is to mention a famous person who graduated (or briefly attended) your school. This, at least, is a factoid rather than propaganda, but should only be used as an 'interesting trivia' kind of conversational element, rather than an attempt to impress.

Students and graduates of certain small liberal arts colleges may find that their schools are not as widely known as they had thought/hoped, no matter what the ranking of the school in US News & World Report. In this case, it is best to accept this fact and come up with a brief but informative description, even if only to mention that it is in Massachusetts or Ohio or California.

Alternatively, when talking to someone who isn't well informed about your school, you may know from experience exactly what you need to say. For example, my friends from Vassar College say that they still have to explain that Vassar is not a women's college and has not been for nearly 40 years, and my friends from Cornell College are perpetually explaining that their school is in Iowa. And a certain person who went to Smith College, when confronted with the need to provide further information, likes to say "The "p" in Psmith is silent" (literary allusion few people get but she thinks it is funny anyway).

If you're going to do the "Ivy League of the Whatever" thing in conversation, at least choose your audience. If you say this to a group of students/graduates of schools that don't use this description, you might come off as kind of a jerk. If you say it to an advisor or potential advisor, they will already have their own opinion of your school, and the news that your school is Ivy Leaguesque will not impress. Presumably your own abilities and/or potential will impress or not, no matter what school you went to.

So, to whom can you mention the Ivy League of the Whateverness of your school? You do have some options, including fellow alumnae/i, your parents, and most small mammals, though even among these, not all will care.

* e.g., Women, Tundra, Interstate 5, Latvia

Thursday, June 12, 2008

My Secretary

During my recent travels, a colleague with whom I was corresponding required a transaction that I could not complete without access to my physical office, which was thousands of miles away. I was stunned to get an email message that asked me if my secretary could help. Perhaps "she" could scan the necessary item and email it?

Perhaps she could, if she existed. I do have some colleagues who have a secretary or who share a secretary with 1-3 other faculty. I, however, am secretaryless.

It would be nice to have someone help with the technical aspects of managing a research program, but my department isn't going to supply me with a secretary any time soon, and I'd rather spend my grant money on research and students.

My husband occasionally mentions that he wishes he had an office "concierge" to make him espresso 5-12 times/day. For some reason that I probably don't want to explore too much, he pictures this person as a gay man with an Italian accent.

The concept of having a secretary or office assistant is too remote for me to have a mental picture of what my theoretical secretary would look (or sound) like. I personally wouldn't mind having an office tabby cat to reduce the rodent population and to look fierce when people come to my office to ask me to do things I don't want to do, although that wouldn't be too practical when I need help with grant or lab management.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

U is for Unlikely

Subtitle: Flying While Female

Owing to my frequent travels, I have attained a lofty (but not stratospheric) position within my preferred airline's frequent flyer program, and am often upgraded on domestic flights and very occasionally on international flights. My fellow business/first class passengers are of course typically Business People.

On a recent flight, as I took my seat in row 1 of an airplane, the man sitting next to me said "Welcome to business class. Were you upgraded?". He informed me that he was not there because of an upgrade -- he always flew business class -- so it wasn't a "Let's bond over our upgrades" kind of conversation. Apparently, he likes to pick out the upgraded people, and I was an easy call. My seat-mate then promptly fell asleep and snored loudly for the rest of the flight, somewhat diminishing my business class experience.

In fact, this was not the first time a Business Man on an airplane has asked me if I had been upgraded. Maybe it's the giant U that airlines stamp on my forehead that gives my upgraded status away.

Actually, I will be the first to admit that I do not look like a Business Person. My casual attire, lack of professional-looking briefcase or suitcase (I prefer the more academic-type briefcase made of soft material, or even a backpack), and inability/unwillingness to attain a state of business-level personal grooming all mark me out as a likely Upgrade when I sit in business class.

Upgraded academics, particularly FSP's like me, must seem strange to Business People. We clearly must fly often, yet many of us don't have the appearance or accoutrements of >90% of the others sitting in business class. Given the possible explanations of (1) eccentric heiress, (2) disheveled but successful artiste, or (3) random upgraded person, answer #3 is typically seen as more likely.

Even so, Were you upgraded? is a strange question to ask someone. It's almost like asking me what my income is, a question considered rude by most Americans, even among friends. So, why are people willing to ask me this question? I cannot help but note that a statistically invalid, anecdotal survey of two male colleagues who do not look like businessmen and who are frequently upgraded on flights reveals that they have never been asked this question.

FSP's Guide to Academic Etiquette does not extend to the business world, but if it did, it would suggest that people not ask this question of strangers on planes. I am not offended by the question itself -- I don't really care whether anyone knows whether I was upgraded or paying full fare -- but it is rather uncool to ask the question anyway. Furthermore, selectively asking it of women is sexist. Therefore, not asking this question is yet one more little way to make the world a nicer place.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Out of the (Language) Lab

For the past two years, I have been taking classes in a language that is very useful for me to know for my research and international collaborations. In four semesters of taking this class 5 days/week, I have done a lot of homework, taken a lot of quizzes, and done a lot of reading, listening, and speaking. Then I went to a country in which this language is spoken. In fact, I am there right now.

I was nervous about going to this country for the first time since I took the language classes. What if I had made no more progress than I had been able to make previously on my own using books and CD's? What if my two years of language classes had made me an expert at doing homework assignments in a textbook but had left me unprepared to comprehend and communicate in this language in the real world? I have long been able to communicate at a basic level in this language, but this basic level has been deeply unsatisfying, hence my decision to take formal classes.

As soon as I got off the plane, I could tell the difference in my comprehension level, and this has been confirmed as I have spent more time here. My comprehension level is not 100%, but it might be somewhere near 80%, and that's a huge difference from the last time I was here.

My speaking abilities are not as good, but I knew that. Spending time here has helped a bit, and I am optimistic about improving with more time here (and more classes next year).

I have been having fun surprising people who don't expect me to speak the language, and have tried to convince a few people (strangers who started talking to me because it is obvious that I am a foreigner) that I am from a mid-sized provincial town in this country. I picked a town that city people have heard of but that is a place that someone who looks and dresses like me would be unlikely to be from. The response is always entertaining, then I laugh and explain, and then they laugh.

There are some rather conservative parts of this country, and in these places, the culture clash is more startling and less entertaining. In these places, men will shake the hands of my male colleagues but will not even look at me or speak to me, much less shake my hand. [Don't even bother with the 'You're probably imagining it' comments. I have been spending substantial amounts of time in this country nearly every year for the last 15 years and I have a significant dataset of unequivocal experiences, ranging from trivial to serious]. My language skills are of less use in those places, though it is still helpful to be able to understand what people are saying.

So, in answer to the question (which I asked myself) of whether two years of language study at a university can be useful, in my case the answer is definitely yes. I am sure I would learn more/faster if I were immersed in this language more, but it's hard enough making time to take the class. Based on my experiences on this trip, I am very happy with what I have learned in my classes and how useful the course experiences have been. In fact, I am about to send an email to my language instructor telling her exactly that.

Note: I am not sure of my internet access after today, so I will likely off the air for the rest of the week, returning some time next week. This is post #500, so maybe it's time to take a short break anyway.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Driven Students

The title of this post is more literal than it might first appear because driven refers to driving a vehicle. This summer, some of my students are being driven by me.

For reasons that relate to complex logistics, lack of reasonable alternatives, and a temporary lack of sanity, I will be driving with my students (and a postdoc) as we visit some universities and other research sites in another country. Given our itinerary, time constraints, and number of people involved, it makes sense for me to rent a fuel-efficient diesel car and drive it to the places we need to go, even though some of the driving distances are semi-substantial.

It would be nice to share the driving, as I have in the past when traveling by car with students, but I have encountered a few stark issues:

- One student does not drive at all and has never had a driver's license.
- Another student does not know how to drive a manual transmission car, the type of car that we are renting.
- The postdoc seldom drives but theoretically could drive, although the country in which we will be driving has opposite traffic rules from what he is used to.

At first I was not happy about having to do so much of the driving (and no, public transportation is not an option). But then I thought: Would I really want to be a passenger in a car driven by one of the others? In the olden days, I didn't give it much thought, but as the age difference between my students and me widens, they seem so young to me. Some of them have been driving for < 10 years, whereas I have been driving for millions of years. Some of them have never driven in a foreign country or in an unfamiliar city. It might not be safe for anyone if they drove, even if they could drive the rental car.

So, I will do lots of driving -- like a soccer mom driving my kids to practice and matches? I don't know if that analogy is accurate, but I do know that when I am driving, I am going to control the radio/CD player in the car. If I choose the right music -- how about a trip down memory lane of the music I listened to in college and grad school? -- maybe that will inspire the others to acquire some driving skills and/or to become professors so they can drive their own students and/or to work only in places where public transportation can be used on research trips.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Nice and Sweet

When traveling in an unfamiliar place, it can be helpful to have a guidebook, preferably the kind that also attempts to explain cultural traditions and local customs. I wonder if a similar concept could be used to facilitate communication between professors and students.

Example: During a meeting to discuss a student's research, if the student's only response to a professor's comments, explanations, or questions (such as "So, what do you think?" or "What are your thoughts/ideas/opinions?") is of the mono-word sort -- e.g. "Sweet" -- some assistance with the cultural/age divide might be useful for both professor and student.

A guidebook for professors could explain that this is a normal expression used to indicate a positive response (synonyms: awesome, cool, nice) and could be interpreted to indicate comprehension on the part of the student and therefore does not necessarily mean that the student is inarticulate and/or did not really understand what the professor said. The expectation of a more specific response that includes complete sentences may be unrealistic without further attempts at conversation and gentle encouragement of the student to express an opinion or ask questions. If these further attempts fail to elicit even a question such as "Could you repeat that in a way that makes sense?", or even "What did you just say?", then it might be reasonable to conclude that the student has no further thoughts on -- or interest in -- the issue at hand.

A guidebook for students could explain that the professor can probably handle an expression such as "Sweet" as an initial response, but it is likely that additional words are like totally expected owing to the professor's long immersion in academia and possible inability to interpret speech that sounds like a text message. Many (but not all) professors adhere to the quaint custom of speaking in complete sentences, whether or not these sentences are intelligible. If the mono-word response is the result of lack of comprehension of any/all or what the professor just said, perhaps a professor-student phrasebook would be useful. That is, just as when traveling in a foreign country, phrases such as "I don't understand. I don't speak much/any professorese. Could you please repeat that?" might come in handy and could be memorized before visiting Professorland.

I hope this doesn't sound patronizing. I am writing about this because I have been encountering this "Sweet" response a lot recently. When I encounter "Sweet" and words of that ilk in response to attempts at discussions with students about their research, it has briefly stopped me in my professorial tracks each time. Each time I wonder what the
mono-response signifies -- interest or lack of interest? lack of ideas? lack of an ability to converse? none of the above? And each time I conclude that I have no idea, but that I should find a friendly but firm way to indicate that a one word response, however awesome, does not a discussion make.