Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Too Liked

Apparently I 'came close' to getting a significant award in the not-so-distant past, and the person who nominated me talked to me recently about why I didn't get the award. He had acquired inside information about the selection process, and wanted to share this with me so that I didn't feel too bad about not getting the award.

In fact, I don't feel bad at all about not getting the award. Awards are nice, but I don't have my happiness or self-esteem tied to the acquisition of honors. I suppose it's comforting to know that I was at least close, and therefore deemed almost-excellent, but at the same time, I find the reason for the close-but-no-award decision a bit puzzling, albeit somewhat understandable.

The main problem with my nomination file was that the letter writers did not seem to be 'objective enough'. The evidence for this was that, based on what they wrote in their letters, they seemed to like me. I didn't see the letters of course, but apparently at least one was quite 'warm', as if written by a friend.

I said to the nominating person, who says he wants to nominate me again next year, "So next time you're going to ask for letters from people who dislike me?".

There's no point in reading too deeply into this incomplete information that may or may not reflect the real reason why I wasn't selected, but that isn't going to stop me from wondering about the perils of being likable.

I should hasten to note that I am not universally liked, nor is global affection a personal goal of mine. Some people like me, some don't. The people who agreed to write letters for me were likely to be in the former category. For whatever reason, the words they chose must have gone beyond a dry summary of my awesome research and betrayed some affection for me as a person. There are certainly worse problems to have than to be liked by colleagues.

Perhaps the 'warmth' exhibited by some letters made me seem like a less serious scientist. It seems to have created doubt in minds of those on the awards committee about the objectivity of the letter writers. So maybe my nominator needs to find people who don't know me but who respect my work. It is surely possible to admire someone's research but have no particular opinion about their personality. It's surely easier to get people to write nice, long, detailed letters if they are writing for someone they know and like, but then apparently there is the danger that the letters will seem to lack objectivity.

Here's where I put on the gender lenses, but I will do so today only for the sake of discussion, as I don't have a strong opinion in this case as to whether my gender was a factor. But consider this:

If letters of reference referred in a warm and friendly way to a male scientist as being a really nice person, would the scientific accomplishments of that scientist be diminished or would he be seen as a great guy who somehow managed to do science and be a nice person? And is your answer the same if the scientist is a woman? Discuss (20 points).

Monday, March 30, 2009

Corrosion Monitoring of Nude Mice Metaphysics

It will come as no surprise to some readers that I am rather fond of strange and possibly even humorous literary contests, such as those that reward people for deliberately writing awful prose in the style of certain famous authors. You can even buy a compilation of The Best of Bad Hemingway.

Some awards are not so nice and reward people for deliberately writing awful prose in the style of non-famous and unsuspecting persons, e.g. applicants to graduate programs. And some awards are for writing that wasn't supposed to be bad, but is. I don't know if there is an academic equivalent of the Bad Sex in Literature Contest, but the Broader Impacts section of some NSF proposals is a possibility.

There is also an award for the "Oddest Book Title of the Year", the Bookseller/Diagram prize, sponsored by The Bookseller magazine. I like the concept of this award, but I am not impressed with the typical result, which is to choose an obscure technical/science publication that sounds weird to the non-technical/non-science reading public. I suppose these are the publications that best fit the criterion that the book not have been intentionally given an odd name, but I don't like the science-is-weird implications.

The winner this year, based on internet voting, involves a technical report generated to evaluate a certain size and type of dairy container. Other candidates are similarly technical, and in my opinion there is nothing strange about them except that their intended audience is rather specialized; e.g. The Large Sieve and its Application or Techniques for Corrosion Monitoring. What is so odd about those? I find it a bit alarming that a publication on corrosion monitoring would be seen as bizarre.

Similarly Baboon Metaphysics may seem somewhat strange as a title, but the topic of consciousness in primates is not so odd.

The belief that technical-sounding things are bizarre and therefore probably irrelevant is dangerous thinking. It can lead, for example, to suspicion and disapproval about how federal funds are spent; e.g. the recent infamous incidents involving rants by politicians about bear DNA studies and volcano monitoring.

This science-is-weird trend is a tradition for this particular Odd Title award, though. The first winner, in 1978, was for Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice. Anyone who even glances at certain general-interest science journals and magazines from time to time knows about nude mice and why they are useful in biomedical research. This is not weird, irrelevant fringe-research.

I would find an Odd Title contest more interesting and less alarming if the eligible titles weren't chosen so much out of techno-ignorance. I realize, though, that fiction books may be deliberately given a strange title, and therefore they aren't quite as unselfconsciously odd.

Perhaps a compromise might be novels with names that appear to be technical manuals, e.g. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Marina Lewyck), which I read a couple of years ago, primarily because of its title.

Friday, March 27, 2009


At a recent Open House event at my daughter's school, one of her teachers said the following to my husband and me:

Your daughter is doing really well. She got an A on her last report, though I wish she'd just do what I ask her to do -- I do provide the students with a checklist -- and not go off on tangents and provide extra information about stuff that apparently interests her. But that's not what you really need to worry about. I gotta tell you, if your daughter ever marries -- and I'm not sure she's ever gonna get married -- her husband will not be the one wearing the pants in that family.

During the moment of stunned silence that followed that pronouncement, another parent broke into the conversation with "Oh Mr. S, I am so worried about how my son Rupert did on that test today and...". My husband and I drifted away.

We walked in silence for a minute, then my husband asked me: Did he just call our daughter a bitch?

I said: No, I think he just called our daughter a castrating bitch.

What's a girl to do? I'd like to say she takes after her mother, but in fact she resembles her father more in her intense personality.

Later, I asked her what she thinks of this teacher and she said that he's nice enough but kind of "ineffectual". Interesting. I wonder if this teacher has issues with pantswearing women.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Worse and Worser

Mostly I have tried to be rather optimistic about the Economic Crisis, including in an earlier post in which I proposed that departments and other academic units may be more likely to try to hold on to tenure-track faculty at this time, as these positions might otherwise go away and not come back. Sometimes, however, data get in the way of a perfectly good hypothesis; e.g. see this post by PZ Myers about the elimination of an entire science department at the University of Florida.

Unless there is some obscure political issue involved, it is difficult to understand the reasoning for eliminating a geoscience department, particularly at a time when the physical sciences are so central to so many global (and local) issues involving the environment: e.g., climate, water, resources/energy.

I am not proposing that some liberal arts department be eliminated instead. The intellectual health of a university depends on the arts and sciences.

But eliminate a science department? Who will teach the youth of Florida about their environment? Who will teach them about water and climate and land and life and how they all interact? Who will teach them about volcano monitoring?

I am very sorry for the scientists and others losing their jobs in this department, and I'm sorry that there is a university that couldn't find a better way to deal with the economic crisis than get rid of a very relevant science department.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Too Little Information

A previous post expressed a wish that students for whom I write letters of recommendation (in some cases, many letters of recommendation) let me know the results of their applications. It was interesting to read the comments from students who said that it had not occurred to them to inform their letter writers about application outcomes.

A related situation came to my attention recently when a colleague who is a director of an undergraduate summer research program lamented that a surprising number of applicants do not respond when he sends out acceptance letters. This program is highly competitive and has a limited number of available positions each summer. There is always a long waiting list of excellent applicants, so if a student who gets a first-round offer has decided to accept another position for the summer, it's nice to know that so that those on the waiting list can get an offer sooner rather than later.

According to my colleague, 50-60% of the first-round offers get an immediate reply and acceptance. The rest don't reply right away. Some eventually reply (there is a deadline by which a response must be received or the offer is rescinded), and either accept or decline the offer. Some never reply at all.

My colleague spends a lot of time organizing and administering this program as a university 'service' activity, including time in the summer when he is not even paid a salary by the university. I suppose this makes him somewhat sensitive to perceived rudeness in the students to whom he is devoting all this time, even if the students have no way of knowing that he is volunteering his time to give them a (well-paid) research opportunity.

I used to have his job running this program, and I don't recall having so much of a problem with non-responders. There are several possible explanations for this:

1 - The number of non-responders has not actually increased with time, and it is my memory that is at fault. Perhaps I don't remember because it didn't bother me at the time. (note: I think this explanation is unlikely)

2 - The number of non-responders has increased with time because:
(a) Students today have a greater sense of entitlement than they did 6-10 years ago when I ran the program.We are here to serve them, and it doesn't occur to them to make the effort to communicate.
(b) Students today have many more options for summer research programs and some students likely have several offers. They make a decision to accept one position, and then they forget about the others.
(c) The current research program director sends out offer letters that are worded in such a way that does not seem (to the students) to require a response.

2c was my preferred interpretation until I saw the offer letters. Maybe some students don't read all the way through the letter, but it does clearly state that a reply of some sort is expected soon. So I suppose 2c could be amended to read "Students don't read the offer letter thoroughly".

I am glad that students have many opportunities for research experiences these days and don't have to have some of the awful summer job experiences that I had in my youth. Nevertheless, it is never too soon to learn Academic Etiquette, including learning what is an appropriate level of communication.

In fact, soon after my colleague complained to me about the lack of communication by undergraduates, one of my own undergrad research assistants asked me if I thought he was emailing his summer research advisor (at another university) too much. I asked him how often he had been emailing this professor, and he said that he had sent two emails within two weeks about [short list of important topics]. I laughed (kindly) and assured him that he was well within the realm of reasonable for the number and topics of emails.

My student did the right thing by asking for advice. My advice to others is: If you get an offer of an internship and the letter requests a response, reply immediately with a brief email containing one of the following pieces of important information (1) I accept, (2) I decline, (3) I'm not sure yet but I will most definitely respond by the stated deadline, if not before.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Custodial Professor

A friend of mine who has been a provost and dean has entertained me for years with stories about amazing things faculty and students (at other universities) do. Stories of the you-couldn't-make-this-stuff-up (and be believed) sort. One of my favorites involved a senior professor who became completely unhinged when a new custodian moved the professor's wastebasket to a different location from the one it had been in for 36 years.

I realize that mentioning that incident is not helpful to my ongoing effort to convince people that (most) professors aren't (too) eccentric, but clearly some of us are deeply weird.

That professor's response -- i.e., writing/calling the provost repeatedly to complain, threatening to sue -- was a bit extreme, but it reminds me of how much we all depend on reliable custodial services in our academic buildings.

In the course of my academic career, I've worked in some buildings that had the same friendly and reliable custodian for many years. Because I have also experienced situations in which there was rapid overturn of the custodial staff, including a few who were a bit alarming and some whose work did not seem to include actually cleaning the building (and one who let thieves into my office to steal things), I do not take it for granted when the custodian who cleans my office is someone I like and trust.

During a recent disruption in custodial services in a building in which I spend a lot of time, the rate at which the building became filthy was remarkable: hallways, classrooms, and restrooms became noticeably grimy and littered in a week. The building also became less safe because there weren't reliable people looking after it, making sure the doors were locked in the evening, and making sure there weren't random people wandering around. After a few weeks, the university had to bring in a special cleaning team to get the building back to a decent level of cleanliness.

That can't possibly have been cost effective, but one of the ways in which some universities are economizing is to cut down on custodial services. I can deal with having my wastebasket emptied less often as long as it is put back in the right place, but I hate to think about the people who are losing their jobs as a result.

I am also dismayed that some universities are making it more difficult for staff members to take courses at reduced tuition rates. Many of the staff members I know (custodial, clerical, administrative, technical) have taken courses, either to work towards a degree and perhaps a better job and/or higher pay, or out of curiosity. For example, some staff members in my department, including some custodians, have taken our intro-level Science class because they were curious about what it is we are all doing here in our offices and labs.

I think the effect of taking away staff tuition benefits will be that staff will take many fewer classes. This will not save the university any money, and will have major negative consequences for many staff members.

I know that the budget has to be cut, it has to be cut severely, and there are only so many ways to do that. Even so, firing custodial staff, who are among the lowest paid regular employees at the university, and taking away one of the most excellent benefits of working at a university will have significant consequences for the safety, health, and intellectual environment of the campus.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Spring Break Confession

When my daughter was in preschool, her spring break week was the same as that of the university and we used to go on family trips for part of the week. Once she started elementary school, her spring break and her parents' spring break went out of phase and we shifted our family trips to the winter break (in addition to summer trips).

That means during my spring break I stay on campus and have a week filled with (relatively) uninterrupted days to get caught up, to work on papers and proposals, and to recharge for the rest of the academic year. I love that week.

BUT, here is a typical conversation I have numerous times every year at a certain time:

Other person: Does your spring break coincide with your daughter's?

FSP: No, they are always different weeks.

Other person: Oh, that's too bad.

FSP when feeling reckless: No, it's not. It's great. I love having a week to read and think and write and be in the lab.

FSP when not wanting to deal with the usual frowny face, taken-aback, you-are-a-scary-scary-person (and possibly a Bad Mother) response: Yeah, it is.

What is really too bad is that I don't always feel comfortable admitting how much I like working in my office over spring break, but if the person to whom I am speaking doesn't know me well, I might not have the time or inclination to explain the overall context of my life so that they can understand why I am not necessarily a scary scary monomaniacal child-neglecting research person, e.g. (1) We go on lots of family trips, just not that particular week; (2) My daughter is a very happy and interesting person who is glad that her mom loves her work; and (3) I love my work.

Of course, when my daughter's spring break rolls around, we have a bit of a challenge. Depending on our teaching schedules, conference schedules, and so on, some or all of us go on a trip for part of that week, or one of the Insane Grandmas helps out, and somehow we manage (and typically manage to enjoy that week as well).

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What Does Everyone Know?

Yesterday I ranted a bit about a lame way that some reviewers try to sink a manuscript by making unsupported/unreferenced claims that there is nothing new in the manuscript. This reminded me of an issue that is related to what I called we-already-knew-thatism. And that is:

When does something become Common Knowledge that (almost) everyone really does know, and therefore no citations are necessary, and when does an 'old' concept still require a citation?

I talked about some aspects of this a while ago (Onset of Conventional Wisdom), but, as happens from time to time, I seem to have more to say on the topic.

There are certain statements that I think everyone would agree need no citation. If, for example, it is somehow relevant to your research that the Earth is not flat, you likely don't need to provide references to support the concept of a non-flat Earth.

Other statements would have required a citation during an earlier time, but at some point most people stopped providing citations because the concept became Common Knowledge. That's the situation that interests me today.

We interrupt this blog to say that as I was typing that last paragraph, a grad student wandered into my office to complain about a paper in which the author didn't cite other people's work in his discussion, as if he (the author) was taking credit for everything or as if the other people's work was Common Knowledge, even though (in my student's opinion), it isn't.


What is the typical time range for the evolution of a concept from citation-required to everyone-knows-that/no citation required? Is there a typical time range?

Probably not, but if I had to guess a typical time range, I would say about 12-15 years, corresponding approximately to the time from an academic's grad school days to the point at which they become wise and all-knowing. A more realistic answer, however, would be that the time range also varies with the fame of the person who published the original papers on the concept of interest. In this case, the concept of fame includes other elements that contribute to or hinder one's ascent to galactic academic fame (nationality, gender, academic pedigree) and therefore neverending citation nirvana.

Another factor is related indirectly to what I discussed yesterday: If someone manages to publish a paper on something that is instantly obvious -- as in, something that makes so much sense but no one had said it that clearly before or no one had bothered to publish it before or there was a breakthrough that explained something rather fundamental but perhaps not surprising -- I think those types of concepts very quickly become Common Knowledge because it is difficult for us to imagine a time when the issue was in doubt. Then, although the author may have done a great service to the community by explaining or clarifying an important puzzle or issue, the citations might trail off pretty quickly after publication.

Such is (academic) life, I suppose. I certainly can't say that the papers I write never contain uncited statements that should be cited, but one thing I do when editing my students' manuscripts is to indicate uncited statements that I think need a reference. It's good to get into the habit of being aware of this issue early-on in your writing career. It's the right (fair) thing to do, and also, as my student's comment today showed, people might think you are a jerk if you are too sparse with the citations. It's probably best if you start your career without a reputation for being a jerk; you can always acquire that reputation later if you want to.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Everyone Knows That Already

There are many possible ways for a reviewer to write negative, undermining comments without appearing to be too vicious, and therefore retaining a semblance of professorial dignity. One species of undermining comment is along the lines of

This paper is not significant because [insert major results of research] is already well known.

In some cases it is easy to demonstrate that this is certainly not the case by citing recent papers by highly regarded people in highly regarded journal that clearly show that most people do not in fact know this, and in fact the prevailing view may be quite different from what the results of the new research show. The new research may be wrong, in which case the argument for rejection of the hypothesis/paper should be based on the science, not on vague statements about what people may or may not already know. Or, if everyone does know, then cite the papers that demonstrate this.

The fact that in some cases the everyone-already-knows-that criticism can be so easily demonstrated as false makes it all the more amazing that someone would attempt this, without sufficient justification, when recommending rejection of a paper, and all the more disappointing that an editor wasn't able to detect the misinformation. A colleague recently sent me some reviews and a negative editorial decision involving exactly this situation. He wrote a strong and well-documented letter back to the editor, but I don't think he has heard yet whether the editor is willing to seek additional reviews. I have great, albeit possibly misplaced and delusional, faith in the peer-review system, and think that in some cases these situations may be resolved through calm, reasoned communication and determination.

I encountered something similar with one of my own manuscripts in the past year. A reviewer said that another scientist (by chance, a good friend of his) had studied this research topic already and had made all the significant contributions there were to be made, and, if my manuscript were to be revised, that the reviewer's friend, whose work was cited in my manuscript, should be cited "more prominently". In fact, the old buddy of the reviewer missed some rather essential things in his work from a decade or so ago, and my manuscript cited his work respectfully and appropriately (I have no idea how to cite the work "more prominently".. find a way to work a citation into the title of my paper?).

I showed that review to a colleague, and he thinks that, despite my advancing age, I might still be encountering a phenomenon I used to experience much more often and severely of being patronized by a particular group of older scientists in my field. They have had no trouble over the years accepting a younger generation of male scientists into their coterie of respected colleagues, but they have, over the years, occasionally swatted me down with the "We already knew that" remark, even in cases where this is demonstrably false.

In this recent case, the reviewer who said that his old grad school chum had already solved the major issues has put a PhD student on the topic on which I was attempting to publish.

It is very frustrating, but these guys are not likely to change. They are not sexist to the core -- in fact, the aforementioned PhD student is a female student who has been having a good experience with her advisor and who is enjoying her research. That's great. In fact, she wrote to me and said that since our interests overlap, she would like to discuss her research with me and might need to ask me for advice. That's great too, and I will help her if she asks. Maybe I'm a doormat, but I have absolutely no interest in perpetuating the insidious I-already-knew-thatism, even though in this case there is a good chance that I actually already did know that.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Authors Gratefully Acknowledge

The Acknowledgments section of a paper might seem like a straightforward statement, but it has a remarkable number of potential pitfalls. I am often asked what should go in the Acknowledgments, if anything,

(1) at the time of first manuscript submission, and
(2) at the time of final (accepted) manuscript submission.


What has to be in the Acknowledgments in both cases?: a list of funding sources

What else should/could be in the Acknowledgments for the first submission?:

the names of other people who contributed directly to the research but who didn't contribute enough to be co-authors and who would be potential reviewers if they didn't have a conflict of interest

As an editor, I find it useful if manuscripts submitted for review contain this information, at least in terms of colleagues who could theoretically be asked to review it. When making decisions about the first submission, I don't care whether someone thanks technical staff or undergrads who helped with the research; in fact, it's not really appropriate at this stage. That kind of information should go in the Acknowledgments if the paper is accepted.

What else should be in the Acknowledgments in the final version of the paper?:

the names of non-coauthors who made a significant contribution (see above; also, this is the time/place to mention technical and other help from colleagues, students, and others)

the names of people who read the manuscript and provided critical comments

If for some reason a reviewer has identified him/herself to the author, either via the review or in some other way that indicates they want their identity to be known, they can be thanked in some non-obsequious, dignified way that acknowledges their efforts but does not imply that they agree with everything in the paper. In some cases a reviewer may identify him/herself even though they thought the paper should be rejected, and in that case he/she would not appreciate appearing to have given the paper their stamp of approval.

What if, as is most common, the reviewers are not known? Do you thank them, whoever they are, anyway? Or do you include a statement saying "We thank the n anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments" as a courtesy, to show that you appreciate the efforts of these people?

I am ambivalent about thanking anonymous people. A statement thanking anonymous reviewers is a way to acknowledge the efforts of those people out there in the world somewhere who spent time reading and making comments on the manuscript, but there isn't a lot of purpose to such a statement. Of course the manuscript was reviewed and if reviewers are not mentioned by name in the Acknowledgments, then clearly they were anonymous, as is the most common situation. Hence my ambivalence.

the names of people who did not contribute directly to the research but who influenced the research in some way

This is a tricky issue, with pitfalls involving what names to mention/not mention and how you word the statement. I think such statements are best avoided altogether unless there is some very compelling reason to thank someone, but I see these thank-yous all the time in papers. I have also seen examples in which the name of someone (say, for example, my own) has not been mentioned in a paper to which I provided a substantial amount of input.

And I have seen examples of Now I'm going to mention a bunch of famous people who are aware I exist. It is very easy to annoy people with this type of statement because you might mention people who don't want to be mentioned and you might exclude people who should have been included. You can take care of the first potential pitfall by asking people if they want to be acknowledged (and showing them exactly how you intend to word this), but it is more difficult to be proactive about the sins-of-omission situation.

The best way to avoid this type of problem is to keep the Acknowledgments short, simple and straightforward:

- funding source(s);
- non-coauthors who contributed in some substantive way to the research;
- reviewers if known and willing to be acknowledged;
- pets.

Other FAQ re. Acknowledgments:

- Should the Acknowledgments be written in the first person or third person? It doesn't matter. Maybe a certain journal has a certain style you should follow. Otherwise, do what you prefer: I/We thank vs. The authors thank.

- If certain people provided comments/reviews on an earlier, rejected version of the manuscript, should they be thanked? Yes, but then you can refer to "an earlier version of the manuscript", which is academic code for "an earlier rejected version of the manuscript", though in theory you could be referring to an earlier draft that you sent around for comments. [If you do want to refer to an earlier unsubmitted version, then you may want to use the word "draft" rather than "version".]

Some examples:

This research was supported/partially supported by [list grants/PIs]. We thank our colleagues [list] who provided insight and expertise that greatly assisted the research, although they may not agree with all of the interpretations/conclusions of this paper.

This research was supported/partially supported by [list grants/PIs]. We thank [person X] for assistance with [a technique], and [person Z] for comments that greatly improved the manuscript.

This research was supported/partially supported by [list grants/PIs]. We thank famous persons X, Y, and Z for sharing their pearls of wisdom with us during the course of this research, and we thank 3 "anonymous" reviewers for their so-called insights. By the way, we are quite sure we know who you are. Student K helped with some technical stuff. We are also immensely grateful to persons Q, R, and S for their comments on an earlier version of the manuscript, although any errors are our own and should not tarnish the reputations of these esteemed persons.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Real Doctors

A tangential remark in Friday's post resulted in a lot of comments. I have not done a poll in ever so long, and clearly it is time for another one. The question of the moment is:

Are people who have a Doctor of Philosophy degree in a non-medical field and who are not practicing physicians nevertheless "real doctors"?

If you agree with the statement that Ph.D.s are not "real doctors", you should vote NO in the poll below. If you disagree and are possibly even somewhat offended by the statement that Doctors of Philosophy are not "real doctors", then you should vote YES.

I am voting NO for two reasons:

- When I think of a "doctor", I think of a medical doctor. I think I am not alone in this opinion. Therefore, despite sharing the title of "Dr." with my physician friends, I am quite content for them to be the "real" doctors and for me to be a different sort of "doctor". I am, however, a real philosopher. [<-- joke]

- The statement "I'm not a real doctor" is of course a reference to an old advertisement featuring an old actor who played in the old TV series that I never watched although I am old enough to have watched it, Marcus Welby, M.D.; i.e. "I'm not a real doctor but I play one on TV". Hence, most people who use the phrase "I'm not a real doctor" are making a culture reference, typically as a joke, and I do not think we should be deprived of this means of attempting humor by those who feel their (Ph.D.) doctoriness is impugned. In fact, I use this phrase all the time in my real life (Example: Once when my daughter fell and scraped her knee, my saying "I'm not a real doctor but I think you are bleeding" made her stop crying and laugh).

But don't let me influence your vote. Vote your conscience, and if the other side prevails in the poll, I shall work on getting used to the idea of being a real doctor.

Are people who have a Doctor of Philosophy degree in a non-medical field *real doctors*?
pollcode.com free polls

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Edge of Insanity

Professors as a group have a reputation for being a bit eccentric. This may be a stereotype or it may be a well deserved description of many professors. Whichever the case, this characterization doesn't help me with something I have been mulling over recently:

How do we know when one colleague's strange behavior is harmless eccentricity or a disturbing sign of a real problem?

As we age, we may get more forgetful, we may develop certain personality traits based on previous environmental conditions that no longer prevail (making us seem erratic or paranoid for no reason), or we may find ourselves ever more removed from the culture and mores of younger generations (and therefore we seem strange, even though we would have been seen as perfectly normal in a previous century).

All that is to be expected, but what if someone's behavior is outside the normal expected range of strangeness for a professor in late middle age or older?

I suppose one indication that someone's strangeness has reached a troubling level would be if the bizarre behavior impacted students. The problem might show up in teaching evaluations, or it might not be decipherable amidst the general vagueness of evaluations. Perhaps as long as a professor is able to do the basic requirements of the job, there is no need to do anything about a colleague's increasing strangeness, other than be concerned for their health.

It's not quite that simple, as possibly-insane colleagues may make disturbing decisions on important committees, may scare visiting faculty and students with strange and aggressive behavior, and may extend the length of faculty meetings owing to incoherent ranting.

Hence my recent mulling.

This is a generalization, and therefore inaccurate, but however fierce professors may be in reviews, exams, or seminars, many of us are reluctant to deal directly with personal issues, perhaps because so many of us are strange.

For example, it is difficult to imagine asking a colleague with whom one does not interact on a personal level or in a professional capacity beyond the daily requirements of being in the same department "Hey, I couldn't help but notice that your behavior in the last few faculty meetings was bizarre even by our quite generous standards for eccentricity. What's with that? Are you OK?"

For some professors, questions of a personal nature, however mild ("So, how are you?"), are very unwelcome and result in a monosyllabic answer.

I have an interest in the issue of increasing strangeness because some of my relatives have been quite strange. If I'm like my grandmother, serious weirdness won't happen until I am ancient and long retired. At the moment, when I am relatively sane (at least for me), my feeling is that I would want someone to tell me if I started to behave more strangely than is usual even for me, as long as this was done in a sensitive way and was motivated by real concern.

Maybe we should take a strangeness test to establish a baseline Strangeness Level against which our behavior can be subsequently compared. I know such things exist for cognitive ability and so on, but I would want a test that was specifically intended for the already-kind-of-eccentric professorial personality. It would have to be able to distinguish benign strangeness* from troubling strangeness in an academic context.

I know from experience with my mother that if someone either doesn't believe or doesn't want to admit they have a problem, it's extraordinarily difficult to get them to seek medical attention. Dealing with similar issues involving colleagues at work is also challenging, even without the emotional issues that accompany family situations. And, despite being Doctors of Philosophy, most of us are not real doctors, are to some extent eccentric relative to the non-academic world, and are clueless about dealing with odd behavior in others.

* Example: Recently I found a headline in The Onion extremely funny and laughed quite a lot while my husband just stared at me, unmoved to laugh himself. When I recovered, my husband said "You're weird". Of course I think he is the strange one for not finding this funny: Victims of cube scheme break even.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

On Teaching & Cheating

In case anyone is wondering why I didn't write much about teaching last fall but I am writing a lot about it so far this year, there are 2 reasons:

1 - My teaching load is variable from year to year and term to term. Unlike some other departments/institutions, we have no fixed teaching load. My teaching load varies depending on the needs of the department relative to courses being offered and faculty available to teach them, whether I am team-teaching or not, whether I am on a research leave/sabbatical (or not), whether Mercury is retrograde, and the mood of the department chair. This term, I am teaching more than I did last term.

2 - It's not just the number of courses being taught in any one academic term but also the SIZE of a course that affects the magnitude of its psychic footprint on my soul. (Was that a turgid sentence?). In a small course, professor-student interaction is dominated by discussion of the course material and other interesting things. In a large course, the interactions have a more significant component of discussion of grades and the Complex Lives of the students. This term, I am teaching a large course.

Hence, more posts than usual about Teaching.

My large class has required a lot of emotional energy lately because I have had to deal with some cheaters.

Part of my general philosophy of teaching is that I trust my students until they give me reason not to. I assume that they won't cheat. I believe them if they say that they have been to every class. I believe them when they say a grandparent died the night before an exam. Both of my grandfathers died within 3 weeks of each other; this would have looked very suspicious to a professor who didn't know me.

As happens all too often when teaching a large lecture class, however, some students give me reason not to trust them, and I have to deal with a Cheating Incident. I hate dealing with Cheating Incidents.

I do some routine but fairly unobtrusive things to discourage cheating:

- I discuss scholarly conduct and put something about the honor code on the syllabus.

- I have assistance from at least one TA during exams so that I can hand the test forms out quickly and so that there is one other person helping answer questions during the test. Having one other person roaming the large lecture hall may help discourage some cheating, although that is not my motivation for having an assistant during tests.

I do not make multiple copies of exams and ensure that adjacent students have different versions of the test. I do not make students sit apart; this would be impossible given the seat : student ratio in the lecture hall. I do not have an army of TAs patrolling the lecture hall during tests. I used to have students sign an honor code statement on each test, but didn't find that this made a difference.

In the situation I had to deal with recently, I saw one student glancing repeatedly at another student's exam. I kept the two exams separate when they were handed in, compared the documents, saw the same strange but identical wrong answers on each one, and knew for sure that I had a Cheating Incident. I suppose if cheaters knew the answer to a question well enough to make a stab at it themselves, they wouldn't write down the word-for-word strange wrong answer of the person sitting next to them.

My colleagues who have brought cheating incidents to the attention of the scholarly conduct committee that deals with such things say that it is not worth the effort, especially if the only things you have to go on are (1) observation of a student glancing at another student's test; and (2) similarity of tests. What if the student was gazing into space or finding inspiration in the dance of the dust motes and wasn't actually focusing on someone else's test? What if the two students studied together? Yes, they studied together and somehow this studying together involved their practicing the same bizarre wrong answer to a question they anticipated.

So what are my vigilante-professor options? Accuse the students separately, hope they break down and confess, and give one or both of them a zero on the test? Do nothing and assume that one or both of them will go through life cheating and that's fine because cheaters never win and winners never cheat, or whatever?

This time I decided on the following course of action: I explained to each student why I believed they cheated, asked if they had anything to say to that (neither one did), I let them keep the grades they 'earned' (they each got a D- anyway), and I told them that for every other test they must sit in the front row but not next to any other student. They agreed, seemed relieved, and now everyone is happy.

Fortunately, there is the wonderful concept of Spring Break, which allows us all -- students and professors -- to get recharged and ready to experience the academic adventures that await us in the coming months.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The T-Word

A colleague is writing a proposal with a large number of other scientists and recently sent around a draft for the group to read, discuss, and edit. One member of this group commented only that the writing was "turgid". Ouch.

The dictionary definition of turgid includes words such as swollen, bloated, and pompous. Turgid is not a nice word, but I suppose it's somewhat kinder than its synonyms.

I tend to be a rather fierce editor, but I have read the proposal draft and I'm not exactly sure what about it is turgid. If the proposal draft said:

We are requesting that the funding fall in torrents -- except at occasional intervals when checked by violent gusts of annual reports which sweep through the internets (for it is in the National Science Foundation that our hopes lie), transforming this planetary body and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the broader impacts that struggle against the darkness of the unempowered. [apologies to Bulwer-Lytton]

then maybe you would have a case for calling the writing turgid. Otherwise, I don't see how anyone could reasonably say that what my colleague has written thus far registers in any significant way on the logarithmic Turgidity Scale.

I have never tried this particular editorial approach: making a somewhat savage comment but not providing anything more specific or constructive. I think I will not be in a hurry to try it out on anyone, though. In the case of students, it would be extraordinarily mean, and in the case of colleagues, it's a good way to have your input ignored unless you also provide more specific advice, if not some actual editing.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Boomer Blogger

It has not escaped my attention that for most people my age, blogging is seen as a rather absurd activity practiced by self-absorbed young people who feel the need to tell the world about their feelings. I see no reason why middle-aged self-absorbed people shouldn't also use this medium to tell the world about their feelings as well, but I have been in numerous social and professional settings in which someone (typically my age or older) says to another "Do you have a blog?" or "Why don't you blog about that?" and everyone laughs at the joke.

The exceptions to the blogs-are-silly opinion held by many of my middle middle aged peers are the political blogs, which many people I know followed obsessively during the presidential election.

According to data I found online, ~ 15% of US adults in my age group have blogs. That's not an insignificant number.

In the blogger population, I am in the minority in age, gender, marital status, and income. I am in the majority in ethnicity and possibly in education. I read that bloggers are "better educated" than the average US adult, but it's not actually by very much (14.3 years compared to 14.2 years). Even so, you could say that I am in the majority by having > 14.2 years of education.

In the community of academic bloggers, my sense is that many are women, so in that context I am not unusual, though it does seem that I am older than most, at least among the blogging scientists.

Somehow I get the feeling that most of my middle aged colleagues are not going to get the urge to blog anytime soon and will not easily change their minds, but I would like to be wrong. In fact, I like to think that the people making the blog-jokes now will one day be inspired to start a cat blog, or a science blog, or a poetry blog, or a zombie film blog. They could even be anonymous..

Monday, March 09, 2009

Voice Change

As my anonymity erodes away -- fortunately at a relatively slow rate so far -- I have been wondering whether it changes my blog-voice. When I am choosing topics and writing my posts, I am aware of the people who know that FSP is me, and sometimes it changes what and how I write.

In some cases that is good: it makes me consider topics from the various possible points of view of the people who know who FSP is. Some of these colleagues also provide me with blog fodder from their academic lives and are willing to let me bounce ideas off them; I enjoy that very much.

Another benefit of being semi-anonymous is that people who know that FSP is me are aware that I am a real person and therefore don't expect me to be a perfect super-mentor person who only gives flawless advice, never complains, never lacks confidence, and who single-handedly enlightens even the most entrenched sexist jerks. This concept seems to elude some of my readers for whom I am just FSP. Furthermore, since these readers know me well, they are able to distinguish musing from whining in my writing (I aim for the former, but occasionally slip into the latter), and therefore typically have a kinder response than that of some commenters. It's nice to have that support, though of course there are other positive comments as well.

In other cases my selective lack of anonymity makes me more cautious, and that may or may not be good depending on the topic and circumstance. And a few times the occasion has arisen in which someone figures out who I am and then I have to think back to whether/what I might have written about them. So far, this has not been a problem.

To date, the benefits of being semi-anonymous have outweighed the negative aspects, but at some point (maybe now), a threshold may be reached when being semi-anonymous to an ever increasing group of people makes writing more complicated.

I don't know.. I'm figuring this out as I go along.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Meeting of the Minds

One of the university committees to which I devote some of my time involves discussion and voting via email. Thus far this year, the committee had not met in person in a real room with chairs and a table and a carafe of ice water and such. In fact, one of the enticements the Dean used when he called me last year to convince me to be on this committee was the fact that this committee "never" meets except by email.

This has been fortunate, because the committee involves a fair amount of time reviewing documents and summarizing things and making decisions. The time commitment would be oppressive if we had actual meetings.

One member of the committee, however, has been longing for us to meet. He has made passionate pleas for an actual meeting because he thinks that the back-and-forth element of discussion in real-time with real people is an invaluable aspect of the decision-making process.

He is right of course, and the committee chair finally acceded to these pleas. We recently provided our schedules for the near future (a sobering thing, seeing one's essentially full schedule typed out for the purposes of filling in one of the few 'open' time slots in it), and a time was found for us to meet.

Regarding scheduling, appearances are deceiving. It's true that I didn't have a class or other meeting at the chosen time and chosen day, but I don't really have time. I had agreed to substitute-teach for another professor later that same day of the meeting, and I had 57 million other extra things to do on top of the usual things during a week when my husband is traveling and my daughter has a disrupted school schedule and so on and so on.

But meet we must, I suppose, so I went to the meeting and tried not to resent the committee member who wanted us to get together. I did not make passive-aggressive pseudo-sarcastic comments to him such as "So, you're having a relatively easy term?" or "I'm really inspired by your dedication to this committee".

I don't know whether I'm glad we met or not. The positive aspects were some of the discussions and the random chit-chatting with professors from other departments.

The negative aspects were the time and the fact that I didn't feel entirely comfortable during some of the more contentious discussions. I have felt quite comfortable contributing my opinions by email, but it is an entirely different experience to sit around a table and argue.

My semi-discomfort stemmed in part from the specific composition of this committee. I am by far the youngest person on the committee, I am the only woman, and I am the only physical scientist -- the others are all older male engineers and mathematicians. It would not be unrealistic to suppose that my presence on this committee is owing entirely to the fact that they needed to have at least one woman member, and, because of the nature of the committee, the woman needs to be a full professor. That decreases the pool of candidates to a very small, sad number.

[Some commenters yesterday were right that being a full professor makes you eligible for all sorts of additional fun professional service opportunities, though I haven't seen any decrease in the number of these opportunities from when I was an associate professor. The committee types change, but not the committee numbers.]

In any case, I've spent enough time on committees as The Woman Committee Member to not obsess so much about having TOKEN stamped on my forehead. Mostly I just focus on the tasks at hand and make whatever contribution I have to make.

So I argued with the engineers and the math guys because they were using very rigid quantitative measures to assess things and I was using a more synoptic approach, and I was out-voted on almost everything and that was how I spent most of a morning earlier this week. I don't think I will be inspired anytime soon to plead for an actual meeting of this committee and will try to content myself with sending impersonal email votes.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Terminal Associate

Some professors get tenure but are never promoted beyond the associate rank and therefore always have an adjective in front of their title. Being a terminal associate is not so bad in the sense that the person has tenure and therefore pretty good job security unless they do something egregious.

In some cases a terminal associate compensates for their low research activity by doing additional teaching and service. Even in those cases, though, terminal associates are not typically held in high esteem by their colleagues.

Most of the terminal associates I know are women.

Common reasons for terminal associate status include:

1. The tenure process was a close call owing to a marginal publication and/or funding record, but enough people were optimistic that the candidate was on an upward trajectory and was finally on a research roll after a slow start owing to various justifiable reasons. Enough people were wrong.

2. The tenure process was not controversial and the candidate was doing well until promotion, but burned out or slowed down upon acquiring tenure and never again performed at a high enough level to be further promoted.

3. The standards for promotion increased with time and the faculty member's productivity did not increase with them. He or she would have been promoted if the standards had remained as they had been when the most senior faculty in the department had been promoted. This situation most commonly afflicts faculty hired in the 1980's and later.

4. Discrimination. Some faculty are held to a higher standard than others for reasons unrelated to academic merit. When this is a factor in tenure, there may be a lawsuit. The promotion from associate professor to professor, however, is a less well-defined process.

At some universities, the promotion from associate to full professor status indicates that the faculty member maintained a high level of research activity, and at others it means that research activity increased with time and is still on an upward trajectory.

At my university, promotion from associate professor to professor requires demonstration of an International Reputation. That is easier to do for faculty in some fields than in others, but it can be accomplished via publication in international journals, attending international conferences, and going on sabbatical in an international location. The most difficult part is finding international colleagues who have impressive titles and who are willing to effuse to a sufficient extent to impress American faculty and administrators.

In some cases when I see that a certain professor has been an associate professor for a long time, I am not surprised. In other cases, I am mystified. I encountered one of these recently when I was looking for something on another department's webpage and clicked on a link to someone I'd known in grad school. Despite being more active in terms of publication, grants, teaching, and advising graduate students than one other colleague I know in her department, she was still an associate professor and he (although hired later) was a professor. I know nothing about the situation in that department, but my opinion of that department plunged, despite my realization that I have incomplete information.

Once when I was visiting a small liberal arts college to give a talk, a female associate professor asked me how she would know when she was ready to be promoted. I was confused because (1) I thought she must already be a full professor considering how productive she'd been and how long she'd been an associate professor, and (2) I didn't know why she had to make the decision about being ready for promotion. Why hadn't her department chair or some other senior faculty raised the issue? She explained that it was up to each individual faculty to ask to be considered for promotion, and she just wasn't sure if she was ready. I assured her that she was ready. In a system like that, it would be very important to have a mentor. I hope that self-serve promotion request systems are rare, but perhaps I should add a scenario to my list above: 5. An associate professor never asked to be considered for promotion owing to lack of confidence.

In my department, there is a pretty good system for evaluating faculty when it seems like a reasonable time to consider them for promotion. When I'd been an associate professor for a few years, my department chair showed my CV to some people and asked them if they thought I was ready for promotion, they said yes, and he started the process. It was a bit early, but it worked out fine. If it had been up to me to decide on my own when I wanted to be considered, I probably would have waited one more year, but I don't think I would have waited more than that.

No matter how long someone has been an associate professor, it is worth revisiting the possibility of their promotion. I know one nearly terminal associate who, after about 15 years as an associate professor, found a new research topic, published, got grants, and revived her research career. She was promoted.

I know another professor who was promoted just a year or two before retirement as part of a deal to get him to retire. It was important to him to retire as a full professor, and that was the only way he was going to be promoted (and the only way he was willing to retire).

These cases may be the exceptions, but they indicate that perhaps it is best not to designate someone as a terminal associate until they have retired, never having been promoted.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


It has been at least several days since I have talked about MONEY, even though my university has recently proposed some truly bizarre money-saving schemes that fall in the heading of 'let's look like we're doing something even though it won't save any money and will make it harder for faculty to do research'.

But let's ignore for the moment the issues of recessions and salary freezes and pay cuts, and consider the evolution of faculty salary over a typical career. In the course of a career at a single institution, most of us get a higher salary as time goes on, with a few moderate to large-ish jumps here and there after a promotion or as a result of retention negotiations.

There are only 2 promotion steps in an academic career (excluding moves to administrative positions), and at some institutions the 'promotion raise' is not impressive. That leaves retention packages as one of the primary ways to get a major increase in salary. In at least some cases (e.g. mine), the retention-related raise is not a way to augment an already high salary. It is a way to raise a salary to the level of one's peers.

So, in my career so far, I got one big raise a couple of years ago as a result of being recruited by another university, and I got another when a new department chair realized that my salary was surprisingly low given my research-teaching-service accomplishments, especially when compared to other faculty at a similar level of seniority.

That last statement leads to all sorts of complex considerations (and emotions): What is your salary relative to other faculty in the same department?

And not just faculty: Some grad students on fellowships make considerably more than grad students with teaching assistantships or even some research assistantships even though they are all doing similar work (and in fact, TAs may be working more).

Salary compression is a common phenomenon, not just in academia. A new employee is hired and negotiates a salary, and in some cases this salary may be similar to or higher than that of more senior employees. In academia, this causes disgruntlement in faculty who started at lower salaries, and who, in a typical system of small annual raises, may always be 'underpaid' relative to more recently hired faculty.

Universities typically do not have sufficient funds to uncompress (decompress?) salaries every time new hires are made. As a result, if you graph salary vs. seniority for faculty in some departments, you get a scatter-plot.

Example: Some of our newest faculty did very well in their negotiations with the chair/dean about salary, and have salaries that are equivalent to those of some associate professors (and even some less active full professors). Aside from the morale of lower paid faculty taking a hit, what are the implications of these (relatively) high salaries? Do they come with higher expectations for productivity?

In fact, a trend in some departments is to give assistant professors less teaching and less service than was the norm in days of yore (see yesterday's post). So now we have a situation in which 1st year assistant professors teaching 0-1.5 classes/year and just getting started with research have a higher salary than more senior faculty who teach a full course load, do lots of service, and maintain a reasonable research program.

My opinion regarding my well-paid younger colleagues: (1) Good for them for getting the salary they wanted, (2) Expectations for productivity of new faculty should be high but reasonable no matter what the starting salary, and (3) If that's the going rate for productive faculty, then the salary structure of the department will need some serious decompressing.

If I have to realign my own salary by getting another outside offer, so be it, but a better system would be one of proactive merit raises for productive faculty on a routine basis.

That requires $$, but once this recession is over, everyone has been bailed out, the crumbling infrastructure has been repaired, hiring freezes are defrosted, and universities have built awesome new student centers and sporting venues, I hope that there will be some money left to raise the salaries of hard-working faculty whose current salaries are mired in compression.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

On Board

A colleague of mine has been attending a series of mentoring sessions with tenure-track faculty this week. These meetings are designed to give the assistant professors an assessment of their progress, evaluate their teaching-research-service activities to see if these are in an appropriate balance, and discuss any questions or concerns.

My colleague reported that the department chair and other senior faculty involved in the discussions were particularly concerned that the assistant professors not teach 'too much' or do much service work in their first few years. This has also been my experience with recent discussions involving the progress of tenure-track faculty.

Most of the motivation for this approach is to give assistant professors time to get their research programs going, but some of the motivation involves helping new faculty become good teachers. If you have time to focus on one new course at a time, that new course will be better than if you are also teaching another new course. If you slowly build up your repertoire of courses and get a solid start, everyone benefits.

This go-slow approach to teaching and service is interesting because it is the opposite of the way things used to be in my department. Even as recently as 10-12 years ago, the philosophy was 'pile the teaching and committee work on the assistant professors', giving real meaning to the adjective 'assistant'.

My colleague has the same reaction I do to the current system: advocating the new mode as a progressive way to support early career faculty so that they make a good start and don't go insane in the process, and yet feeling a twinge of "Wouldn't it have been nice if ..." (things had been that way for me).

This twinge must be suppressed until it is only a faint feeling of wistfulness. Otherwise there is a danger that senior faculty like me will get in the mode of "Well if I had to suffer, so should they" or "I'm not impressed with her because she didn't work as hard as I did when I was an assistant professor".

I don't see that happening, at least not in a way that people are willing to express openly. This gives me some hope that academia can change to allow for a better work environment and work-life balance: if we can overcome our urge to treat assistant professors as we were treated when we were at that stage, and still respect them for what they accomplish, we can make some progress.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Center Intelligence

Not long ago I heard about a program designed to encourage women to pursue advanced studies in math. This program, the Center for Women in Mathematics at Smith College, is a very smart idea. I am particularly intrigued and impressed by the post-baccalaureate program.

Women who have an undergraduate degree that was not math-intensive or who have an interest in math but are not ready for (or sure about) graduate study in math spend a semester or a year at Smith College, taking courses at Smith or one of the other nearby schools, doing research with a professor, and being mentored about graduate school and career options.

This all sounds great, but one of the most amazing parts is that there is a full tuition waiver and students are provided with a modest stipend. The funds come from the college and from NSF.

As a graduate advisor at a large university, I would be very interested in an applicant who had successfully completed such a program. In addition to the excellent experience gained via coursework and research, a student who spends an intense year on such an endeavor has demonstrated motivation and commitment. These are essential elements for success in graduate school, but are among the most difficult things to guess about applicants to a graduate program just based on application materials.

Wouldn't I be at all concerned that a student had needed an extra year to get ready for grad school and hadn't known since she was 4 that she wanted to study math? No, I would not be concerned at all. Not everyone knows what they want to do with their life, even when forced to declare a major in college. Not everyone gets the courses they need when they need them. A program like this could well have an impact on the number of women who choose and succeed in math-related careers.

To those who worry that women who receive their training in math or science at a women's college and who therefore might not be prepared for "the real world", I will repeat my usual response to this: Do you think women need practice being discriminated against?

If a young woman spends a semester, a year, or 4 years being treated with respect as a scholar, this will make her more -- not less -- prepared to deal with the so-called real-world.

Women's colleges may not be a good environment for all women, but I am glad they are still around and inventing new ways to help women succeed.