Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Meeting Points

At my daughter's old school, parent-teacher conferences were leisurely discussions of a wide range of topics, and, through these conversations, parents and teachers got to know each other better. The part I always found most interesting was getting a glimpse of my daughter's school-day interactions with teachers and classmates.

I was just perusing a handout about how parent-teacher conferences will be conducted at her new school. The new school is larger than the old one, and teachers have less time to meet with parents. I understand that, but I was nevertheless taken aback by being given instructions.

Parent-Teacher Conference Rules & Suggestions

1. Make a list of everything you want to talk about with the teacher before the meeting.

2. Arrive promptly or early so that the conference can begin on schedule.

3. Begin with positive comments about the teacher, class, or school.

4. Do not bring up topics that require lengthy discussion or that are not related to the purpose of the conference.

5. Be open-minded when the teacher makes suggestions.

6. Keep your emotions under control.

7. Take notes about what the teacher says about your child.

8. Thank the teacher and express your appreciation for the conference.

9. Do not stay beyond your scheduled time. Conferences cannot last more than ten (10) minutes without prior arrangement.

Most of these are reasonable. I suppose I was most taken aback by being told to compliment the teacher and/or school at the beginning and end of the meeting, and by the rigid 10-minute limit of the conference.

Even so, there is something to be said for being organized about these interactions. Perhaps I should adapt these rules for my office hours? How about the following:

Student-Professor Office Hour Rules & Suggestions

1. Be prepared for your visit with your professor. If you are going to ask questions, know what they are in advance. If you have written them down, know where this list is. If you are going to need a book or notebook or some other material (perhaps a writing implement?) during the meeting, have it out and ready so that your professor does not need to watch you rummage through your backpack.

2. Arrive during office hours (not before or after) or at another pre-arranged time. If you are going to be more than 7 minutes late for a specific appointment or are not going to show up, call.

3. Do not whine about how hard you are working and do not make insincere statements about how much you love the class, especially if you are asking for something (e.g. an A; more time on an assignment; a make-up exam).

4. Do not describe at length your personal life unless you have reason to think that your professor wants to hear about this. For example, if your professor says "How fascinating. Please tell me more about your ovarian cysts", you can feel free to discuss your medical experiences at length. If you launch into a description of your medical problems with no evidence that the professor wants to know the details of your problems, just give the relevant information. Professors can be quite empathetic people, but realize that a professor's idea of Too Much Information might be different from yours.

5. If your professor makes suggestions for how you might improve your understanding of course materials and/or improve your grade (e.g. attend class), it's a good idea to consider these ideas.

6. Keep your emotions under control if at all possible, especially if these emotions involve anger. It is OK to cry, as long as you aren't crying in order to acquire something (e.g. an A; more time on an assignment; a make-up exam).

7. Take notes about what the professor says if you think you might want to use this information for course-related activities (e.g. passing the class). If your professor has been scribbling notes and figures on scrap paper to help answer your questions, it's OK to ask if you can have the paper for future reference.

8. If you visit the professor during an appointment outside regular office hours because you couldn't attend the scheduled office hour and/or you need additional time and assistance, it's polite to thank the professor for his/her time, but the best thank-you is to be prepared, to listen, and to learn.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Professorial Reserve

Barack Obama was a law professor at the University of Chicago, so it makes sense for his professorial past to be part of discussions about his experience(s), but not all Obama/professor references in the media are direct references to his work as a professor. In fact, this post was motivated by hearing Obama's recent debate performance described as "too professorial", an oft-repeated phrase in reference to Obama.

An internet search for "Obama" and "professorial" yields several phrases highly favored by the mainstream media and bloggers. I have color-coded these in the examples below, not because I think my readers are stupid and unable to understand complex concepts without having everything simplified for them, but for ease of viewing and for dramatic and aesthetic effect.

Obama struggles to feel voters' pain because of his ..aloof, professorial side.

But whether out of
professorial reserve or budding political caution..

Democrats Worry That Obama Is
Too Professorial.. In Debate Settings.

professorial style didn't keep him from scoring quick points.

The intellectual Obama
professorial style doesn’t work for most Americans.

professorial approach to Iraq..

..many people - maybe because of Obama's
professorial nature .. seem to think Obama talks down to them.

When he’s not giving Teleprompter speeches he comes across as
quite professorial and far too analytical.

But I think Obama, who has had the problem in the past of being
too professorial..

..ability to channel enough charisma to overcome his
professorial reserve.

That’s him, exhibiting typical Ivory Tower
Professorial reserve.

..those that are anti-Obama will say that the cool, calm and reserved demeanor is Obama just being
aloof or too professorial.

Obama already suffers from coming across as
too professorial ...

Obama is considered by some to be
too professorial, too distant..

Obama is
too professorial in his convoluted explanations.

Question: Is it OK to be professorial, as long as you aren't too professorial?

In the above examples, there are three professor-themed descriptions that appear again and again:(1) Obama is too professorial; (2) he has/shows professorial reserve (a concept clearly associated with being aloof, distant); and (3) he has a professorial nature, style, and/or approach.

What do these descriptions mean? I think they are bizarre. Nonsense. Stupid. That said, I will now elaborate using complete sentences and perhaps also obscure words and multiple relative clauses that few people can understand.

I get the fact that these descriptions are shorthand for someone who gives complex explanations (= convoluted, not simple) and who does not have a warm and fuzzy personality (= distant, aloof, reserved). What I don't get is what this has to do with professors -- as in, real-life professors that one actually encounters at the nation's universities and colleges -- and why professorial is synonymous with condescending.

Has anyone done a study on this?: What % of professors are aloof? In my personal niche in the academic ecosystem, the number is exceedingly small. In fact, to succeed as a professor these days, the ability to communicate in a clear and compelling way (e.g. to a classroom of students, to a proposal review panel) is essential.

The % of professors who are condescending is larger, but still by no means even close to a majority. I have more commonly been condescended to by doctors and home repair people, but for some reason this description is more typically applied to professors.

I don't spend a lot of time hanging out at the law school so I don't know what things are like over there on a day-to-day basis, but I serve on university committees with law school faculty and know law school professors socially. The words "too professorial" or "professorial reserve" or even "condescending" do not come to mind at all as accurate descriptions of the law faculty I know. Perhaps some law professors glide silently through the halls in their personal space bubbles and over time forget how to be anything but aloof.

I do not believe that professors are statistically more reserved than the average American. In fact, speaking as someone from a part of the country where people are rather well known for not being particularly forthcoming in friendly conversation, it seems to me that the personality of a reserved person, professorial or not, might resonate quite well with ordinary Americans in this and many other parts of the country.

To me, professorial describes someone with deep knowledge of a topic or even someone who can explain things. These are not obviously bad things. It is clearly time to eschew uses of the term professorial that imply a cold, condescending person who is unable to think or speak clearly.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Top 10 Things I Have Learned as a Professor-Student

This is now my 5th consecutive semester of taking an undergraduate language course. I have learned a lot from the course about the target language, but I have also learned (or relearned) some important things about being a student.

Top 10 things I have learned by being a student (again):

10. how strange it is to get constant emails from companies and organizations that want to sell me term papers, notes, books, or recordings so that I will get high grades without working hard or attending class;

9. how important it is that the course syllabus be followed; or, if changes are made, that these are clearly explained;

8. how much I dislike getting motivational stickers on my homework assignments;

7. how much I like sitting in the same seat in the classroom each day;

6. how difficult it is to have many hours of homework for one class due in a short amount of time;

5. how fun it can be to be part of a small group of nice people working together on something;

4. how stressful it is to take exams, especially impossible ones;

3. what it feels like to not want to be called on in class;

2. how good it feels to be learning something completely new;

1. I am old.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Interruptions Love a Vacuum

This week my two most frequent sources of intra-office distraction are away. One might suppose that a consequence of my being left to my own devices more than usual would be that I would have more uninterrupted time in the office. I hasten to add that I enjoy these distractions, and in fact distraction isn't the right word, as much of the time we are working on something or at least talking about it.

But no. While working in my office this week, I have noticed that I have had even more interruptions than usual, and, instead of spending my time talking with an interesting colleague, these interruptions have been quite random.

Examples from one typical day this week:

- Random students (not from my class) stopped by to ask directions to another building (three separate incidents);

- Random students stopped to ask directions to the restrooms (two separate incidents);

- Publishing rep stopped by to ask if I can convince more of my colleagues to use my textbook (short answer: no);

- Student known to me but not in my class stopped by for advice about his Future; I am not the undergrad advisor and the student is not interested in my field of research, but he said he saw my door open and just thought he'd see what I thought about some possibilities;

- Three different staff members on separate occasions saw my door open and stopped by to say hi or ask a non-urgent question; I am happy to talk to them (I even like 2 of them), but ..

I am just glad that everyone has a cell phone now and I don't get the "Can I use your phone?" questions from random unknown people anymore.

Yes, I could close my door. I do close my door if I absolutely do not want to be interrupted, but in general I don't like sitting in my office with the door closed during the day. In addition to the random interruptions, there have of course been visits from students and colleagues with whom I want and need to talk, and for them I leave my door open.

My hypothesis about the increase in interruptions this week is that many of them would not have occurred had my colleagues not been out of town. Every once in a while a random person will interrupt a conversation I am having in my office and ask directions to the restroom or another building, but I think it is more typical for people to be dissuaded from a random visit if they sense that someone is in the midst of another conversation in their office.

My other hypothesis, which I tested as I typed this, is that if I bring my laptop to a cafe, no one will interrupt me to ask me for anything, unless I happen to sit near a coveted power outlet.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Journal Choice (3)

Is it possible to publish too much in one (somewhat specialized) journal?

No and yes.

No: Does it really matter? As long as the journal has effective standards of some sort, is respected in its field, and is part of the Science Citation Index, why not publish a lot in one journal? Your papers will be read if anyone is interested whether you publish exclusively in the Journal of Pink Kangaroo Studies (JPKS) vs. half in JPKS and half in the JMKS (Journal of Mauve Kangaroo Studies).

Yes: If you publish exclusively in one journal that is quite specialized, your research may appear narrow, and these days, narrow is not highly admired. Furthermore, people might wonder: Do you have some special deal going with the editor? Does this journal publish anything you send them no matter what? Is the editor a close friend or relative, or are you so well known that the editor assumes that all your papers are great even if they aren’t? One of my favorite journals is in danger of becoming the Journal of One Famous Obnoxious* Person, and I don’t think that’s a good thing.

If you have the option of publishing in a range of respected journals, I think it is good to publish in many/all of them, but it is fine if there's one (or two) that you publish in much more often than in others, but perhaps I only think that because that is what I do.

* Please disregard this adjective; it is irrelevant to the point.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Journal Choice (2)

As I was writing about choose-a-journal issues yesterday, I was aware that I was missing a few topics, but I decided to leave them for another time, not only because the post was already long enough but also because I was in the midst of an insane amount of homework for my language class [> 6 hours = insane amount, even for a weekend, especially since I didn't start it until the evening, not quite realizing the immensity of my tasks]. In any case, some commenters picked up on a few holes in the discussion, so I will continue with a few other journal-choice issues.

Yesterday I didn't deal with the issue of choosing between/among tippy-topmost tier journals vs. merely top-tier journals; I wrote only about consideration of similar highly ranked (but not highest ranked) journals. A few years ago I would have strongly advised going for the top journals on the first try (if you felt somewhat confident that your work could/should be published there), and either being published or at least rejected quickly. I would still advise this, but with the caveat that the at-least-you-get-rejected-quickly mantra doesn't apply so much anymore.

Speaking from the collective experience of various colleagues and me, it is quite possible to go through several review cycles for a top-tier journal, getting overall positive reviews, doing additional work/research to comply with reviewer and editor comments, only to find -- many months later -- that the editor doesn't want to publish the paper.

The paper is probably ultimately better for all these efforts and the time is not 'wasted', but the drawn-out rejection process of some journals can be frustrating and perhaps even harmful to early-career people.

Another issue:

What if your research is multi-inter-transdisciplinary and there is no one specialized journal that will easily reach your various intended audiences?

This is an issue because, although your paper can still be found using keyword searches in Web of Science etc., it is unlikely to come to the widespread attention of people in other fields unless someone in another field cites it. If you’re lucky, you will get one or more boundary-crossing citations and this will start an avalanche of interest (and citations).

I confronted this multi-disciplinary publishing issue recently when I was working with someone in an engineering field. We each wanted to publish our results in journals that were widely read and respected in our fields. I didn’t have anything against publishing in the Journal of Engineering Stuff and my colleague didn’t have anything against publishing in the Journal of Mysterious Physical Science Things, but was there a way to publish in both without shingling? (i.e. writing the same paper twice and publishing it in two places). We’re still not sure how/whether to try to publish our papers in engineering and science journals, but we decided to proceed for now by each of us taking the lead on at least one paper that emphasizes our individual expertise and seeing how the resulting manuscripts look.

One of our main concerns with this situation is that we have each had students involved in this research, and these students, if they have certain career aspirations, need to have recognizable journal names on their CV. However many cosmic points you get for being multi-inter-transdisciplinary, prospective employers (academic or otherwise) might not be impressed by your paper in Journal I've Never Heard Of, even if that journal is widely known and respected in another field. Therefore, we are attempting a non-shingling publishing blitz in science and engineering journals. I'm not yet sure how/whether it will all work out.

Coming attraction: Is it possible to publish too much in one (specialized) journal?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Journal Matchmaking

When a project reaches the publishable stage, it is time to mull over the question: To which journal should the manuscript be submitted?

In some cases this question needs to be answered at the very earliest stages of manuscript preparation, as the answer may govern fundamental aspects of manuscript content, style, and length. In other cases -- e.g. when there are several likely options that aren't dramatically different from each other in focus or impact factor -- the answer can wait until the manuscript is underway, though I like to figure out the target journal fairly early in the process if possible.

For most manuscripts, I have any easy time figuring out the target journal. In some cases, however, there are several reasonable possibilities and it can be difficult to choose. These situations tend to involve projects that don't easily fit into the traditional specialized categories of my field or are projects in which I am a minor participant.

I don't think my journal-decision making process is any different now than when I was an early-career scientist because I am still publishing in the same journals. The advent of search engines and citation indices has shifted the publishing ecosystem in many ways, but the esteemed journals are still the esteemed journals, and you need to publish in them if you want colleagues to respect your work.

Despite the tyranny of citation indices and h-indices and so on, the plus side of indexing is that it is somewhat less important where you publish, as long as your paper is indexed. A paper in a random highly-specialized journal is perhaps somewhat less likely to sink into obscurity than it might have been during the print-only days. Perhaps.

Fortunately there are many appealing options between the high-impact monosyllabic-titled journals and Journals of Last Resort. It's good to be able to choose among an array of journals that are widely read and respected, so that best-fit considerations can guide the decision.

When making the Journal Decision, I also take into account my opinions about the editorial process of a journal. Some journals are extremely slow; I try to avoid these if possible, though that isn't always possible. Some journals have insane editors. Ditto. But journals can change through time. Slow editorial systems can become more efficient, and formerly good journals can sink owing to insane and/or slow editors or other random factors. You can figure out which is which through experience and by talking to colleagues and others.

As I was thinking about this topic, I realized I had no idea how many journals I have published in during my career beyond having a feeling that it was more than a few. So I counted them (including only published papers, not manuscripts in review) and the number is in the twenties.

If I don't consider the journals in which I've published only once, the number drops by about 1/3. Some of those 1-paper journals were co-authored with colleagues who publish in a different field and my involvement in this type of research began and ended with one project; others were random projects that ended up in somewhat obscure, highly-specialized journals for various reasons (e.g. special issues related to a conference).

I actually don't know if my Journal Number (JN) is high or low. I suspect it is high but not absurdly high compared to the JN for other researchers in my field, as there are many possible journals in which our type of research can be published. If it is on the high side, this may be because my work tends to be fairly interdisciplinary, opening up even more possibilities for suitable journals.

So, for most papers my decision about where to publish can be summarized as follows, keeping in mind that the journal pool I am discussing in this general case consists of top-tier (if not stratospheric-tier) journals and that minute differences in impact factor of a journal are not important in my decision:

(1) I consider the range of possible journals for the topic; this is typically a number > 2 but < 10;

(2) I consider whether one more more are a slightly better fit for the topic owing to other papers published in that/those journals; in some cases this decreases the number of possible journals and in some cases it doesn't;

(3) I consider my recent experiences with a journal in terms of the editorial process, or, lacking my own data, I consult with colleagues or I look at recent papers to calculate a typical submission-to-publication time;

(4) I look at the journal's format re. publishing papers online early and other logistical aspects of the submission and publication process, though there is really only one journal whose submission/manuscript processing methods are so abhorrent to me that it will be a long time before I submit another manuscript there;

(5) I consider whether other papers on related topics have appeared in certain journals; some journals can develop a micro-niche for certain topics;

(6) I consider where I have published recently; if I haven't published in a particular journal for a while and if there is no good reason not to send the manuscript there, I may decide it's time to try for another Journal of X paper, just for variety, even though that's probably a bit irrational;

and then I decide.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Child's Play

This evening my daughter complained about a presentation by an acting group that visited her class today and talked to the kids about how important it is to do well in school. The presentation involved role playing and funny sounds and exaggerated acting and games and (apparently) the assumption that the kids couldn't understand complex concepts like priorities. Although by no means averse to games and role-playing (in fact, her beloved summer camp seems to consist mostly of such activities), she said she hoped that this kind of in-class childish activity went away in college, if not before, and she added, for good measure "I hate think-pair-share."

She was saddened to hear that think-pair-share is alive and well in universities. I have been to numerous teaching workshops in which professors are urged to try it and other activities with cute names. Supposedly, concepts will be more interesting, memorable, and better understood if introduced via activities – i.e., so-called active (as opposed to passive) learning.

A consequence of integrating activities into lecture time is that it may not be possible to cover as many topics – or as many topics in depth – as it would be without the activities. Is it worth it to cover fewer topics if those topics are better understood or is it better to cover more topics and not leave out any important concepts? Of course, part of the equation involves the subjective decision about what concepts are important.

Another issue is that if you want to incorporate active-learning into a lecture-format course, you have to decide how to integrate activities with the rest of the course material, and to make the activities meaningful, not just some random little game that is played for the sake of doing something other than lecture.

I hope that these written statements are fairly clear. Perhaps later I will organize a little anonymous activity we can all do that will help us understand the essential issues and come to a deeper feeling for the topic.

In the meantime, I should mention that some college (and younger) students love these activities, even if some find them insulting and childish. I should also mention that I am not only talking about student response to activities I may attempt in my lectures, but am talking more generally based on information gleaned from other colleagues.

In fact, this post is motivated not only by today's conversation with my daughter but also in part by a recent conversation with a colleague who sat in the back of a classroom while another colleague was teaching. The teaching colleague had students come to the front of the room and do some activities that illustrated concepts; these were not actual experiments but sort of 'analogy' activities where each student symbolized some scientific phenomenon and acted out a process.

The observing colleague overheard some grumbling students say that they hadn’t had to do anything so childish in class since 3rd grade. I can see how it might be a shock, especially for a 1st year student, to arrive at a big university lecture and be expected to play pretend in the front of the class, but perhaps the experience, even if somewhat insulting, will be especially memorable?

I don't know, but I do know that in any large class there is going to be a diversity of opinion on teaching and learning styles. And of course there will also be some disagreement between some professors and students about the best ways to teach and learn.

Late in the last century I went to a teaching workshop in which undergraduates told a group of professors how they (the students) learned best. This workshop was memorable for two reasons:

(1) The students told us professors that they wanted to play “more games” in class; and

(2) An elderly Professor of History, incensed with the relentlessness of the workshop’s message that we should sacrifice course content for “games” and that we should assume that our students are lost and confused and in need of our help with “life issues” (again at the expense of course content), stood up and made an impassioned speech about the beauty of intellectual pursuits and how this beauty would be besmirched if we spent time in class asking students how they were feeling and doing role play games to teach them how to take the bus, even in a class on Ancient Civilizations. The professorial audience gave him an ovation. The students looked glum. The professor-student chasm widened.

Regular readers will recall that I have been taking language courses at my university. I am currently in the 3rd year of these courses. We do role playing and such in these classes, but it makes sense to do this in a language class. It is helpful to pretend to be buying a bus ticket or asking for directions in the language we are learning.

But what about in other classes? What about in science classes? In the science classes I teach, I do some in-class activities, but I don't think any of these could be called games. The activities help break up the lecture format, and I specifically choose activities that are short, interactive, and make a simple but important point. I don't think anyone feels like a 3rd grader during these activities, and so far I haven't had to give anyone a timeout.

I sometimes feel (perhaps because of peer pressure) that I should do more activities in my science classes but I haven't yet found a good way to do this and still have time to discuss all the topics I consider essential.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Teaching Statement

Yesterday I wrote about how my daughter's teacher says things to her class that I would not consider saying to my classes of university students. This teacher also wears clothing items that I would not consider wearing. For example, when teaching, she wears T-shirts that Make A Statement.

In addition to not having any interest in Making A Statement while teaching, there is a question of whether it would be appropriate for me to teach my science classes wearing a T-shirt that supported a political candidate or a cause. Even if I were really proud of being one of only 4 people to vote for Dennis Kucinich* in the primaries, what would be the point of wearing a Kucinich for President T-shirt while I teach my science classes?

What if the T-shirt text or design was an attempt at humor more related to the course topic? Perhaps that would be more appropriate (?). In fact, some of the T-shirts my daughter's teacher wears are funny (e.g. "Shakespeare Hates Your Emo Poems"), and are a way to make a point that helps with her teaching.

On a few occasions when I was a graduate student teaching assistant, I wore a T-shirt with a humorous science image on it that made the students laugh and that eased the tension a bit on exam day. I haven't done this as a professor, but I never wear text-laden T-shirts anyway.

With a few exceptions, students are not fragile creatures whose educational experience will be destroyed if their professor wears a T-shirt that implies that the he/she has different political views or sports team preferences than the student, has a penguin fetish, is a huge fan of The Smiths, or thinks meat is murder**. Even so, in our struggle to get and keep student attention in class (an effort perhaps undermined by wearing clothes that express our interests and views) vs. our wish to seem like real people with real lives and outside interests (an effort perhaps assisted by such clothing), my personal preference is to leave the Statement Garb at home.

I am not, however, ready to wear graph-paper shirts like 87% of my colleagues do, but fortunately there are a few other options between those two extremes.

* before I knew about his UFO sighting.
** Did anyone get that reference to the 1985 Smiths' album, Meat is Murder?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Chickens on Crack

Every once in a while when my daughter tells me about her school experiences, I am amazed at some of the things her teachers say to the students. If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have said that professors feel less restricted about the expressions they use (idioms, similes, metaphors, synecdoche, preterition) when teaching than do K-8 teachers, but now I think otherwise.

Example: When students turn in homework or exams with handwriting that is impossible or difficult to decipher, making the already-painful task of grading even more painful, I talk to the class, explain the importance of writing in such a way that I can read what they have written, and gently threaten to assume that an answer is wrong if I can't read it. This typically works to improve handwriting to a legible, if not beautiful, level. In extreme cases, I write illegible comments on student work, and when the student comes to talk to me about my poor handwriting, we chat about the importance of legibility.

My daughter's teacher, however, yelled at her class last week and told them that they all write like "chickens on crack". My daughter and her friends thought that was very funny and they have been joking about chickens on crack for days. The teacher also made some other comment involving reference to "meth", and now there is a group of pre-teens who think meth is funny.

I am not upset about the teacher's casual references to drugs, but I am surprised at her use of these expressions in class. I attempt to make jokes in my classes, but so far have not had occasion to joke about drug use by humans or barnyard animals. I asked a few professor colleagues if they would make a similar joke, and all said no. It's not that we think our students will descend into a self-destructive abyss of drug addiction if we make a drug-themed joke in class, but somehow it just doesn't seem appropriate.

I suppose one use of unusual expressions -- perhaps even somewhat shocking expressions -- is to get students' attention and to make your point especially memorable. If you say something that the students don't expect, maybe what you say will have a greater impact. This would be one situation in which "chickens on crack" type expressions would come in handy, whether you are teaching at an elementary school or a university.

It is somewhat tempting to do an experiment. In one class, politely request that the students write in a legible way, calmly stating that it would be really nice if they made an effort with penmanship so that you could read their assignments and exams more easily. In another class, raise your voice and tell the students they write like "chickens on crack". Would there be any difference in level of improvement of penmanship of the two classes?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


By popular demand, my probably-not-very-useful further thoughts on the issue of needing two academic positions at the same or neighboring institutions; i.e., the infamous twobodyproblem:

As I have written before, although I have experience with the twobodyproblem, this is an issue about which I do not have a strong opinion in terms of What You Should Do if you are in this situation. Everyone’s situation is different – every couple is different, every career path is different. There’s no one useful set of rules to follow to make sure that the problem is solved for everyone.

In addition, my own experiences may not be very relevant because every institution deals with this situation differently. I think that many institutions are becoming more proactive about finding solutions, including having specific protocols for how the cost of an 'extra' faculty position would be distributed among the department, college, and university (in the case of a large institution that has this type of administrative structure).

To answer some specific questions I have been asked about this topic:

If one of you already has a tenure-track position, should you look for a different position pre-tenure?

Yes. One of the most efficient ways to solve the twobodyproblem is to get an offer from another place. I was told by my first university that there was absolutely no way they could hire my husband.. until I got another offer, at which time a tenure-track position for my husband magically appeared.

Is it better to wait for tenure?

No, don't wait. You are more portable as an Assistant Professor. You may have more opportunities to move at the junior level.

How do you approach other universities? Do you explain your situation?

You can if you want, but you don't have to, even if your situation is widely known in your field. I applied for other tenure-track positions when I already had one, and I did not mention my husband in my application. Most people in my field knew about my situation anyway, and I got asked about it at every interview, as did my husband at his interviews.

When asked, I first made it clear that I was sincerely interested in the position for which I was being interviewed, and then said that I wanted to be considered based on my own merits, despite my twobodyproblem. We didn't try to negotiate two positions until we had offers, and this worked well for us, but again, other scenarios might work just as well.

You are not being dishonest if you don't mention your personal situation when applying for a job.

Do we have a better chance of getting two jobs if we live apart for a while?

I don't know. Again, every situation is so different, I can't answer this question for anyone but myself. If living apart is feasible, albeit difficult, perhaps try it for a while but agree on some sort of plan/time-frame for living in the same place at some specified time in the future, or at least agree to reevaluate the situation at some specific time.

In my case, I am convinced that my husband and I would not have ended up with two tenure-track positions in the same place if we had not lived apart for a few years. It was easier for University #2 to hire us both because we both had good records of being independent scientists with publications, grants, and (in my case) teaching experience, but we were still fairly junior. We were both hired as Assistant Professors, although I got some years of credit for my first job and came up for tenure soon after arriving at University #2.

Some couples end up living apart until they retire. I would not have done this, but fortunately we never had to face the choice of being a professor or living together.

Will I have a better chance of having an academic job and a family if I marry another scientist or should I marry someone in the art history department?

Some people think that the biggest challenge is if both members of the couple are in the same or similar fields. Different-field couples have the advantage of there being a chance that a large university will have two openings that might fit each person’s expertise, but academic couples in different fields also have serious challenges. In the case of same-field couples, university administrative structures can more easily handle the situation; e.g., if a single Dean is responsible for making decisions about faculty lines and budgets, it might be easier to make a second hire than in the case of different-field couples. That is, a science department will likely have no influence whatsoever on the hiring situation in the English department, and vice versa.

I am just musing. I don't think the level of difficulty in getting two academic jobs in the same vs. different fields would or should affect someone's decision about whether to marry a physicist or an art historian, although physicists are cuter.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Paper v. PDF

It has been interesting to see how many people have ordered the printed version of the FSP book as compared to downloading the e-version: slightly more than half have ordered the printed version. I thought that the pdf version would prevail over the print version because it is cheaper and faster to obtain, and because many of us do a lot of our reading in e-formats these days.

Part of the preference for print v. pdf may relate to a desire to gaze at (and possess) the glossy graph paper cover of the printed version (note that, contrary to the impression one gets from the low-resolution grayscale image on the preview screen, the actual cover has blue lines), but a more likely explanation may be that many people still prefer to read printed text instead of text on a screen.

Even though I too am fond of printed text in some forms, the number of documents that I read only in electronic format has been increasing steadily. I used to print out numerous drafts of each manuscript, mark up the printouts as I edited them, input my corrections into the file, then print it out again and repeat until it was perfect or I couldn't bear to read it again. I still go through numerous drafts, but now I only print out the almost-final version. In some cases -- e.g. if I am a minor co-author -- I never print the manuscript and only do electronic editing.

I also used to like to have a printed version of some reprints that I downloaded as pdf's, but now I almost never print them out, and I do most of my manuscript and proposal reviews without printing out the document.

Anyone who was on proposal review panel in decades past will remember the giant boxes of proposals that would arrive before a panel meeting. It was very daunting. We read just as many proposals online now, but somehow it doesn't seem quite so overwhelming because the experience isn't accompanied by a dramatic visual representation of forest clear-cutting.

Similarly, those who submitted proposals back in ancient times surely do not miss making 57 photocopies of each proposal, doing battle with the heavy-duty stapler, and then mailing everything off in a big box.

Despite the obvious improvement in quality of some aspects of academic life owing to the decline in use of paper documents, I don't know why my print v. pdf ratio for reading documents has changed so much in other respects. Perhaps the increase in e-reading is related in part to the fact that monitor quality has improved a lot. I have had the same size of monitor in terms of screen dimensions for 15 years, but reading a document on a non-flat lower resolution monitor, however large, in the days of yore was certainly not as easy on the eyes as reading a document on a high-res flat panel monitor. Perhaps also I just got used to reading documents on the screen and find it more efficient.

Print is still my preferred mode for reading books and my morning newspaper, and it is easier for my cats to sit on these than on a laptop keyboard, although they are quite skilled at both. Even so, I have been occasionally tempted by the thought of acquiring a electronic device for downloading and reading books. A friend of mine is quite happy with the Kindle portable reading device she acquired from Amazon, and I can see that there are certain circumstances when it would be very handy. For example, perhaps I could have avoided the trauma last year of being on a trans-Atlantic return flight with nothing to read but a book whose first chapter was narrated by a giraffe fetus.

It would be nice to have many options easily at hand without having to haul around a dozen books on each long trip, but it will be a sad day if my only option is to read books and newspapers on an electronic device, even if my print : pdf reading ratio is increasing year by year.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ode to Campus Joy

When I wander around a university campus, I am reminded of how great it is to work in an academic environment. Despite the occasional monstrosity of a building (typically the architecture department, for some strange reason), the buildings are beautiful and there are car-free zones that are excellent for strolling.

On a nice day, people are out and about doing classic campus activities. I assume they are doing these by choice and are not paid by the university to ensure that there is always someone playing frisbee on a lawn somewhere or sitting reading under a tree.

I like the crazy people who shout about Satan or sea mammals (though I am not so fond of the people with the pictures of fetuses), and the musicians on the sidewalks, even if most of them seem to be tortured by deep and sad emotions, or at least profound weariness at singing bad songs from my generation's high school and college days.

Regular readers already know how I feel about the squirrels.

BUT, and there is a BUT: I hate the marching band. I am sorry, but I really do. I do not hate the individual musicians as people of course, and I am glad that there are students who want to spend their extracurricular time playing the tuba rather than violent video games that degrade women and/or extraterrestrials, but why do they need to practice where anyone can hear them?

Perhaps those who choose to attend sporting events enjoy the sights and sounds of the marching band performing on game day, but would anyone choose to work in an office in the vicinity of a practicing marching band? My office is not near the athletic facilities. What evil person decided "Hey, let's have the tuba, drum, and trombone players practice over there between those academic buildings. It is nice and quiet there."?

This week was particularly trying because the tubas were practicing some songs that should never be attempted by a marching band. I wonder if the university would buy me some excellent noise-canceling headphones and/or pay for therapy so that I can work through my hostility issues related to marching bands.

I doubt if I could get these expenses past the accountants, who have now decided that we have to justify every single expense we make or even think about making, including those that are already described in gory detail in the budget justification of the grant. I have been attempting to get away with increasingly absurd secondary justifications*, with only partial success. Perhaps the accountants have been driven mad by the many hours that people in our building must listen to tubas practicing songs from "The Sound of Music".

* secondary justification = a justification of something that has already been sufficiently justified

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Against the Drafts

From time to time, mostly in the summer, I advise students from small colleges in research projects. Most of these students do very well, but on occasion there are students who don't like the BigU environment. In particular, they don't like the fact that they are not the main focus of professorial attention. I spend a lot of time interacting with my undergrad researchers throughout their projects, but this time is surely less than what some of them are used to.

I like to think that my SLAC interns are getting a glimpse of what life might be like for them as graduate students at a BigU, for better or worse. So, in addition to getting a research experience, they are getting a cultural experience that might help them make informed decisions about their post-graduation plans.

Below, in abridged form, is correspondence between a SLAC intern and me, highlighting an example of differences in expectations and priorities between a small college student and a BigU professor:

FSI (former summer intern): I'm sending you a draft of an abstract I'd like to submit for the X meeting next year based on the work I did with you. I think it's pretty good and I worked really hard on it, so I hope you like it too! Please send me comments as soon as possible!

FSP: I can tell from your abstract that you have a good grasp of the motivation for the study, but the text doesn't contain any of the data or conclusions from your summer research. I know this is your first conference abstract, so maybe it would help if you looked at some examples of abstracts from recent conferences of this sort, to get a sense for content and style. In the meantime, I've written a few sentences to show you how the abstract might start, and I've listed topics and data items that could form the bulk of the abstract.

FSI: Thanks for the comments but the way that you sent them was not helpful to me at all. The sentences you wrote make things very difficult for me. Please do not write any actual text, just general suggestions. You write better than me so if you write some text I will never learn how to do that myself. I am working really really hard. I am going to work on the next draft between 1-2 pm today and then send it to you, so if you could be in your office then (taking into account the time zones), you can send comments back to me right away.

FSP: I am happy to help you with the abstract, but I am going to use my best judgment as to the most constructive way to do so: a combination of text + general suggestions. The research results are interesting, and I am sure you can come up with a good abstract with a bit more work. Alas, I cannot be in my office at the time you specified, but I will send further comments in plenty of time before the submission deadline.

FSI: OK, here is a new draft. I am going to sleep now but please send me more comments soon so I can work on this in the morning.

FSP: The new version you sent me is identical to the first version. I think you must have attached the wrong file.

FSI [next morning]: Sorry! Here is the new draft. Please send me comments SOON! Please do NOT rewrite the text for me. Just send me general comments!

FSP [afternoon]: This new draft if better, but it still needs quite a bit of work in terms of content and writing. I have provided both specific and general suggestions on the attached draft.

FSI [same afternoon]: Thanks, here is another draft. I took all of your suggestions and I wrote some new parts about the data and results.

FSP [that night]: In the latest version, you have not fixed any of the errors that I noted in my last set of comments. I am sorry that I do not have time to repeat these comments and to go over more drafts with you, so I have made the edits directly in the abstract. You can submit this version of the abstract. I think your summer research results will make a great conference presentation, and I look forward to seeing you again next year at the meeting.

FSI [next morning]: I really want there to be at least a few sentences in this abstract that are 100% my own and not ones that you have changed at all, so I have added some new sentences to the beginning and end. I am attaching a new draft.

FSP: I can appreciate that you want the abstract to be your own, but the sentences that you added contain incorrect or misleading information, as well as new typos. I do not think it is a good idea to cast doubt on decades of existing work unless there is a good reason to do so. It would not be a good idea to submit an abstract with these statements as-written.

FSI: OK, I will submit the version you want. I looked at the submission form and it says that I need your department address and office phone number. Do I really need these? If I do, can you please send them to me? I also need the addresses and phone numbers of the other coauthors. Can you send those as well? I really want to submit this soon so I hope you will send me this information. I may need your help with other things too. Can you be in your office at 2 pm today?

[FSP email not sent: Yes, No/Google, No/Google, No]


In discussing this with colleagues, opinions are divided as to whether I should have been more helpful with respect to the student's desire to be independent, even if it meant repeating the same editorial suggestions and going through even more than the 4 drafts I eventually read vs. whether I was too accommodating of the student's lack of organization, initiative, and demonstrated ability to work independently.

There is also the issue of whether I should have showed my annoyance with the student's demands about how and when I should provide comments.

Given my quality control freakiness, there was no way I was going to consent to submission of a highly flawed (and in one version, offensive) abstract, but I think I would have let things slide if the only problems were somewhat awkward sentences.

I don't know what happens to a student who needs so much help with so many things so continually and who wants to attend graduate school. There aren't such things as small liberal arts graduate schools in Science, as far as I know. I can, however, recommend to my former intern some smaller programs or less prickly advisors with small research groups, in the hopes that this will be a better environment for her than my somewhat-large research setting was.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Thanks But No Thanks

It is so gratifying to know that other professors (Angry Professor, for example) also get exciting offers of international travel. Here is one of my own examples:

Dear Professor FSP,

I am an instructor at [insert name of university I have never heard of in the most troubled part of a Very Troubled Country in which Americans and others have been kidnapped and killed with some frequency] and I am very interested in your researches. I have followed your papers. I am happy to tell you that this year is the nth anniversary of the founding of my institute.


A Scientist from a Very Troubled Country

Dear Scientist,

Thank you for your kind email. I congratulate you on the anniversary of your institute.



Dear Professor FSP,

Thank you a lot for your reply and good wishes. I would like to invite you to visit my institute and give a speech as part of our anniversary celebrations. The speech will be on [insert date a few months away]. It will be my honor to show you our beautiful institute.


A Scientist from a Very Troubled Country

Dear Scientist,

Thank for your invitation. I am honored but I regret that I am not able to accept. I have other commitments for travel at the time of your event. Congratulations again on the anniversary of your institute and best wishes for a successful celebration.



Dear Professor FSP,

Your name is on our printed programs as the most special speaker of the ceremony and we cannot change this now, the ceremony is too soon. I have told all my colleagues that you are coming and we are happy for your coming. It will be very bad for me if you do not give us a speech. We are waiting your visit. Please tell me of your arrival time and I will be at the airport to meet you.


A Scientist from a Very Troubled Country

I feel great sympathy for my would-be colleague and the difficult conditions under which he lives and works, but I tend not to respond well to manipulation and deceit, even if accompanied by an invitation to visit an intriguing place.

Is there really anyone who would have replied "Oh well, OK, if the programs are already printed, I will change my existing plans, buy a plane ticket, attempt to get a visa, acquire more life insurance, and jet off to give the speech."?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Indifferent Bureaucracy

On Friday, I discussed academic/non-academic communication issues, and referred to an essay by William Deresiewicz in The American Scholar about "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education." The main theme of the essay -- that people who went to Yale can't talk to working class people because Yale didn't teach them how to do this -- does not merit additional discussion, but I wanted to mention a few things about the author's views of non-elite institutions.

His views of non-elite institutions are just as strange as one might suppose from the rest of his essay. He believes that some? most? all? public universities are run by an "
indifferent bureaucracy" and his view of students is that:

At schools like Cleveland State, they’re being trained for positions somewhere in the middle of the class system, in the depths of one bureaucracy or another. They’re being conditioned for lives with few second chances, no extensions, little support, narrow opportunity—lives of subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not guidelines."

Non-elite schools
are basically factories that churn out oppressed drones to be the cubicle-dwelling accountants and customer service representatives upon whom the elitely educated rely for their quotidian needs?

In the essay, the term "indifferent bureaucracy" seems to include professors as well as administrators, and this is a great disservice to all the hard-working and caring faculty at non-elite institutions. In addition, most state universities, however non-elite, have swarms of deanlets and other administrators whose sole purpose is to advise students, help them stay on track, work out plans for failing students, and send endless email to faculty with instructions on how to provide the best customer service for our student-clients.

There may be indifferent university administrations out there; I cannot argue otherwise. Furthermore, all the state universities with which I have been most closely associated have Carnegie Classifications of
RU/VH, Research University/Very High research activity.

I have never been a student or faculty at a school like the author's favorite example, Cleveland State, so perhaps I don't speak from any more experience than the author of the essay, but from time to time I visit schools like Cleveland State. I typically give a few talks each year at regional universities that do not have research/graduate programs and that do not typically have outside speakers visit departments to give talks. This, along with the experiences of friends and colleagues who teach at regional (non-research focused) universities, form my (incomplete) database.

When I give a talk at a regional university, students are likely to ask me "Why are you here?", "Why do you want to talk to us?", or "Are you visiting because you want a job here?" because they are puzzled by the purpose of my visit. As
Deresiewicz correctly notes, these schools are not besieged by academic or professional visitors, unlike the situation at elite institutions.

Why do I visit? The organization that pays for my travel has the specific focus of facilitating visits by faculty from research universities to non-research universities, to meet the students and faculty, talk about summer internships, graduate school and other career opportunities in the sciences, and basically just help the faculty get students excited about science and education. An additional purpose is for students to see women professors in a field in which there are few.

Some of my colleagues sneer at these visits. You're going to give a talk at Southwest-central Statename University? Will there be chickens at your talk? But I love these visits. Some of them have been grim, I must admit. When the faculty are relentlessly negative, when no one wants to talk to me outside of my scheduled lecture because they are "too busy", and when I am left on my own in the evening to walk alone down blighted industrial strips hoping to find a Subway, I can get a bit downcast about the experience. These bad experiences have, however, been extremely rare.

Much more often, I visit places where faculty are doing amazing things despite high teaching loads and large classes of students with complex lives, where students are working hard and are excited about what they are learning, and where people ask me lots of questions after my talk, with interesting conversations continuing throughout the evening. That is my experience at most of the places I visit. There are interesting people everywhere. There are bright and motivated students everywhere. Perhaps they are attending a regional university for economic or family reasons. Perhaps they screwed up in high school and didn't get focused and intellectually engaged until college. Some of these students have the same career goals as students at more elite universities, and, if they do well as undergrads, there is no reason they can't have interesting (and lucrative) careers.

My husband said to me recently "You always grumble about going on these trips to
Southwest-central Statename University [confession: I do grumble; the trips take a lot of time and energy that I don't always have in abundance], but you always return happy about the trip and filled with stories about all the great people you met."

Yes, there are major differences between the student populations (and the experience of giving a talk) at Regional U and Prestigious U, but I think most students at Regional U's would be surprised to hear that they are doomed to narrow lives of subordination just because they are not attending an elite university. They might not, however, be surprised to find that people at elite universities believe that this is their fate.

Monday, September 08, 2008

She Said/They Said

The other day I was standing in line at a local eatery to acquire some take-out food so that I could have that cherished experience of eating at my desk, when the person next to me in line asked:

Aren't you [insert my real name]?

Me: Yes.

Other person: I work in the Development Office at the university, and we were just talking about you. You have children, don't you?

Me: I have one child, a daughter.

Other person: How old is she?

Me: [insert tween age]

Other person: I remember when my daughters were that age. [insert rambling reminiscence, at some point during which we both acquire our food]. Well, it was great to talk to you. [leaves]

Do I really want to know who "we" are and why the development office at my large university was discussing me and my offspring?

Imaginary scenario #1 in the Development Office:

Person 1: One of our alums was asking if there are any women faculty in the science departments. I know there are some. Do you know anything about them?

Person 2: What about that woman in the X Department? There was something written about her in that boring and crass glossy magazine the university publishes.

Person 1: Oh that's right, now I remember. She seems kind of strange. I wonder what her kids are like.

Preferred imaginary scenario #2 in the Development Office:

Person 1: I am so tired of chasing after big donors who are only interested in the athletics program or having their name on a plaque in a corridor of some biomedical building. I wish we could highlight something different for a change.

Person 2: Perhaps we could try to get more money for physical sciences research at the University. The physical sciences are central to most major issues facing the world today, and some physical sciences faculty at this university are doing fascinating research.

Person 1: That's so true. For example, there's that professor over in the X Department. I was reading about her research and how she manages her career and family life. Maybe that's the kind of faculty we should be supporting.

Person 2: Yes, I agree completely, especially if she can use the prefix nano in the name of some of her research projects.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Talking to the Plumber

Following on yesterday's post about talkativeness, another issue related to communication skills involves the ability (or lack thereof) of academics to converse with non-academics. I suppose some would replace the word "academics" with "intellectuals", but intellectuals (sensu stricto*) can inhabit both academic and non-academic environments, and highly intelligent people are found in all social and economic classes.

There has been much discussion of this general topic, particularly this summer, owing to the publication of the article by William Deresiewicz in The American Scholar, "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education".

In the essay, there are statements with which I agree, e.g. that those who attend elite universities are not necessarily "better" people (or even smarter) than those who do not, and there are aspects of it with which I disagree, e.g. that an elite education renders one unable to converse with anyone who had a different educational experience.

So Deresiewicz is unable to converse with his plumber. I do not believe that that is because Yale brainwashed him to believe that he had nothing to say to plumbers because he is intellectually superior to such people. If he's right, though, I find it puzzling that his subsequent life experiences gave him no conversational fodder whatsoever.

In general, I do not easily converse in a chit-chat kind of way with people I don't know, whether or not they are professors or plumbers, but this condition pre-dates my elite college education. Even so, I am capable of talking about the weather, pets, or children if the situation requires. I am even capable, particularly under torture, of talking about Sports. I know nothing about how any team in any sport is currently doing at any given moment, but I can ask questions, thereby maintaining a semblance of a conversation. Again, this applies to conversations with academics and non-academics alike.

My ability to converse with non-academics also varies depending on the other person's conversational skills. A professor-plumber communication gap is by no means exclusively the fault of the professor. For example, I do not typically have good conversations with home-repair people who patronize me or assume I know nothing about electricity or other "guy things" (e.g. The electrician who was distressed when he realized that he had to talk to me instead of my husband, saying "Oh great, I don't suppose you even know where the fuse box is."). In contrast, I always enjoy chatting with a certain handyman who does random repairs on our house. He is a nice and interesting person (and he thinks my cats are beautiful).

I think that for most people, everyday communication is a complex process that has many variables related to personalities, mood, context, weather, and so on.

So far I have been discussing one's ability to converse across the academic/non-academic boundary. Another (related) issue is one's interest in doing so. I must admit that I avoid certain situations (in fact, two: haircuts and appointments with a particular dental hygienist whose conversation about her church and son easily adds 20 extra minutes to routine appointments) because I find the conversational aspects of them excruciating (literally so in the case of the chatty dental hygienist).

How is this different from
Deresiewicz's inability to converse with his plumber? There may be some similarities stemming from an academic/non-academic culture gap, but any conversational shortcomings on my part are not because my educational background has failed me in some way. I think I can take responsibility for this all by myself.

[possible topic for next week: Deresiewicz's comments on the "indifferent bureauocracy" of non-elite academic institutions]

* Use of the Latin in this context represents an attempt at humor.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Does She Have Teeth?

Thanks to all who left nice comments on the post yesterday about science blogs vs. academic culture blogs. I still feel like I don't understand why, given the number of science blogs in existence, some people think that this particular blog should have more scientific content. Does it mean this blog is less rigorous? Scientists should write about Science? And so on.

But today I want to talk about something else. I recently encountered an extremely talkative colleague, and this conversation, combined with an event during my summer visit to the ancestral home, made me think about the issue of Talkativeness.

During my visit to the home of my youth, my father made a brief appearance and gave me a photocopy of a page of notes he took at Parents’ Night at my school when I was in 9th grade.

The only time that parents met teachers was during an evening at the school, typically in the late fall or early winter, after we’d been in school for months. On this one night, parents went to the school en masse (and sans kids) to walk the halls of the school, gaze at our desks, and meet the teachers. Parents talked for a few minutes with each teacher while other parents milled about nearby, waiting their turn.

I don’t know for sure of course, but it wouldn’t surprise me if no other parent took notes at these events. (background info/abridged history of my father’s career: Navy → seminary/ministry → engineering). He had already morphed into an engineer when he took the notes in a little pocket notebook, no doubt using one of the many pens he carries around in his front pocket.

Here is what my father wrote down about me during one of these meet-and-greet events with my teachers in 9th grade:

SCIENCE, 97%: Good work. Gets along with other kids. Doesn’t talk much. Doesn’t appear to be afraid of teacher. Will answer direct questions.

ENGLISH, 99%: Very quiet. Highest grade. Excellent writing. Doesn’t talk much to teacher. Talks to friends.

In 7th or 8th grade, a teacher asked my parents: “Does she have teeth?”, wondering if my reluctance to speak in class related to a dire dental problem.

Seeing these notes reminded me of just how annoying it was that everyone focused so much on my quietness, assuming it was unhealthy. I loved school, I had friends, and I was involved in numerous activities (school sports team, school newspaper etc.). If a teacher initiated a conversation with me, I had no trouble conversing.

I was quiet, but (in my opinion) not in a dysfunctional way. In the opinion of my teachers, however, I was too quiet. I know this from what my parents told my teachers, as duly recorded by my father in his notes, and I know it because my teachers used to try to bring me "out of my shell", a phrase I have always loathed. The attempts typically involved public humiliation, and I found them counterproductive.

My youthful experiences as a quiet person taught me a few things:

- Many people assume that quiet people are stupid and/or disturbed. Quiet people are not necessarily stupid or disturbed; they may be or they may not be, just like people who talk easily and/or a lot. The lack of correlation between intelligence and talkativeness has been important to remember during my experiences teaching and advising, especially in classes that require student participation or when advising a quiet/shy student in a research project.

- As long as someone can communicate at some level, there is no need for extraordinary measures to make them talk more. Humiliation is not a good method for encouraging a student (or anyone) to talk more.

- People who are quiet are not necessarily bad teachers or bad speakers. There may be no correlation between ability to speak in social settings and ability to speak to a class or professional audience. I have always enjoyed public speaking, even during my most intensely shy years. In contrast, some very outgoing people may be terrified of public speaking.

- Being quiet/shy as a child may actually be good preparation for later life, contrary to what teachers, parents, and others typically assume. I think it made me somewhat stubborn, or at least reinforced that trait. In my youth, I preferred to be quiet -- it felt right to me, and didn't seem like something that needed radical alteration. Over the years, I've been told that I needed to change things about myself to succeed -- my personality (not aggressive enough), my appearance (not old/serious/tall/well-dressed enough), my voice (too soft, too female) etc., but I always felt that I could succeed by working hard, caring about my work, and being smart enough.

I have learned that it's OK to be quiet and/or shy, as long as the shyness is not so extreme as to make all human interaction painful and difficult.

Something else I (re)learned on my recent trip to the ancestral home:

- My mother married a man who is even more strange than the men her sisters married, and this gives me pause.

A colleague recently told me that my posts have been rather long lately, so I will stop here for now, but I have more to write (but not say aloud) about this topic.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Where's the Science?

Every once in a while, a commenter remarks that this blog is not a Science Blog but is instead an Academic Culture Blog. Some commenters politely request that there be more scientific content (though some understand that this would be an anonymity-compromising move), and some are rather more rude about it, acidly noting that there is no scientific content whatsoever in this blog, as if this will be painful news for me.

This is not a Science Blog. It is what it is because I don't feel like blogging about scientific topics, however fascinated I am by my research field. There are many science blogs, but this is not one of them. Even if I could retain my anonymity to some extent and blog about science, I would not.

Perhaps my lack of interest in blogging about science relates to the issue I discussed the other day with reference to whether blogging is a good use of one's time. Blogging is sort of a hobby for me, and I like that I have an outlet for discussing academic issues other than those directly related to specific research. I also like that I can contribute my perspective as an academic inhabitant not otherwise well represented in the blogosphere - a senior FSP.

I am fascinated by the academic ecosystem, and am particularly interested in issues that aren't typically discussed much, if at all. Some of these are generic academic issues, some are specific to science (and perhaps engineering/math), some are specific to professors at research universities, and some are specific to Female (Science) Professors -- or some combination of those elements. I also write about random things, mostly about family and cats.

There are some very interesting issues related to research, teaching, and life as a professor in my specific research field, and these I don't discuss because of my wish to remain semi-anonymous for now. Even these issues, though, are related more to academic culture than to the science itself.

Even if I have no wish at this time to write a Science Blog, I'm glad that other people write such blogs.

Maybe part of the problem for me is that I don't have a clear sense of what my purpose of writing about science would be. I have zero interest in blog-lecturing about research topics. I find most explanatory/lecture blogs boring, though I'm sure that others find them interesting and I am glad that this is so.

I would be slightly more interested in writing about Science in the News, but there are many such blogs and other sites that do just that. I'd have to feel rather strongly that I had a new perspective to add to the discussion before I would blog about scientific news.

Maybe someday I will run out of things to say about academic culture and will turn my attention to another hobby, perhaps even Science Blogging .. or emu farming .. or creating designer graph paper (and graph-paper themed apparel). For now, however, I am still finding things to discuss and am interested in reading (most of) the comments and posting random cat pictures.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Watch Your Eyes

The now-famous video of John McCain glancing repeatedly and furtively in the general direction of the backside of Sarah Palin while she gave her VP candidate speech has divided the electorate into those who say he was looking at her teleprompter (though why he needed to read her speech instead of listening to her, I don't know) and those who think he was being a sleazy guy (an impression boosted by his obsessive fiddling with his wedding ring while he was looking at whatever he was looking at).

I don't know what he was doing, but another odd thing about the event is how he keeps trying to kiss her at the end of her speech, and how she keeps moving out of his reach. Maybe this was just an awkward moment, but it sure looks like she doesn't want McCain leaning towards her as he does. Eventually she gives in and he kisses her cheek.

This has happened to me before (though never with John McCain), including an episode a few months ago when I was visiting another university and an American scientist I have met maybe once years ago insisted on kissing me, and not in a European-style cheek kissing kind of way. I stepped back and made it clear I only wanted to shake hands, but he ignored that. He's about a foot taller than I am, and I didn't feel like I had much choice. I wish there were a good way to avoid such experiences, whether or not someone is going to put a video of it on YouTube.

And then there's the issue of the ambiguous glance. This post is not a political rant or a comment on Palin's qualifications or her ability to be a "good" mother and a candidate/VP (I find the latter question abhorrent and cannot be objective about the rest of it). This is a comment on the significance of McCain's glances, no matter what he was looking at:

- If McCain was looking at the teleprompter, he wasn't listening to Palin. If he had to look sideways to see the teleprompter, why not just listen to her? Didn't he know that furtive glances would look strange? And didn't he know that, given the location of the teleprompter, it might not be obvious what he was looking at? Her speech was a rather important moment in his campaign, if not in history.

- If he was glancing at her, does he think that it's OK to look at a woman this way, on or off camera? Zuska and others have written about men-looking-at-women issues recently and in earlier posts, and I will not go over all the reasons why a woman might not want to be stared at in the way that McCain appears to be staring at Palin. I find Palin's political and social views repellent, but I think she should be treated in a respectful and professional way.

If this moment really is going to be historic, McCain should listen to his running-mate when she is speaking, he should look her in the eye, and he should treat her with the same respect that he would have given to any of the men he considered choosing as a VP candidate. And then, if elected, to show solidarity with all the women who are paid less than men for the same work, he should pay her 77% of Cheney's salary. [← joke]

Monday, September 01, 2008

Labor Daze

Every once in a while, a commenter writes that I should spend time on my Research rather than writing this blog. That is, the time I spend writing this blog would be better spent doing my research rather than whining about how difficult my life as a Female Science Professor is. My priorities are askew and/or I enjoy wallowing in victimhood so much that I will never be a truly successful science professor.

It would be interesting to know whether the amount of time spent by these commenters reading blogs and writing comments (rather than doing their research) is at all similar to the amount of time I spend blog writing, but alas, those data are unavailable.

I am unsure of the basis for the assumption that blog-writing time is directly subtracted from research time, as opposed to, say, sleeping or house-cleaning or zorbing time. Of course, we could all spend infinite time on research, and the world would be a better place if we did so [ ← sarcastic font].

I am going to assume that the time I spend with my family is an acceptable use of non-research time, but how is blog-writing time different from time spent on some other hobby or professional service activity?

Do these commenters similarly criticize people who spend time gardening or playing online chess rather than spending that time doing research? Imagine if I said to a colleague “You know, Bob, that time you spend golfing really would be better spent on Research. You’ll never get into the National Academy of Sciences if you keep going off to the links every weekend for a couple of hours.” Would that be a sane thing to say?

Or how about: “Pierre, how can you justify spending all that time writing poems about giant squid when you should be doing Research instead of irrelevant writing that will do nothing to get you into the Academy?”. Even if the squid poems are not so great, why shouldn't my colleague spend his time writing them?

There seems to be something about FSP-type blogs that inspires the patronizing “you should be doing research” (instead of writing a blog) comments from some people.

I guess I could run an experiment and blog about my cats for a few weeks (or months) and see if I still get these comments. Or I could just let the cats write the blog while I use this time to do research.. or golf (which in my case would be mini-golf, at which I excel, if I may say so myself).