Friday, April 10, 2009

Out Dated

A post over at See Jane Compute about Things That Make Us Feel Old reminded me of a phenomenon I wanted to write about:

when students see a reference to a paper by someone with the same last name as their professor and assume that the paper was written by the person they know, even if the paper was published decades before the professor became a professor.

So far, this has only happened to me twice, but it may happen more often as time goes by. The reasons it has thus far been a rare occurrence include:

1 - There aren't that many other Scientists with the same last name as me, so students don't encounter non-me references much.

2 - The few Scientists with the same last name haven't published much.

3 - I have only recently started looking my age, so it used to be obvious (to most people) that I couldn't have published a paper a long long time ago.

The first time a student thought I had published a paper in the early 1970's, when I was in elementary school, I thought it was very funny. I said "Yes, although I was only 9 years old that year, I felt it was time to start publishing", and then I walked away, not sure whether to hope that they would believe me or that they would realize how absurd their assumption was.

This mistaken assumption may become less amusing with time.

I know that it is difficult for young people to gauge the age of old(er) people: anyone over 40 might as well be 50 or 60 or whatever, but it might be a good idea to do the math before verbalizing an assumption that a middle-aged person was publishing > 30 years ago. Just a suggestion.


Juliet said...

This is so true. Last year at a reception an undergraduate asked my 40-year-old geographer husband how he had managed to avoid the Vietnam draft.

Anonymous said...

Equally annoying: having the student come across a paper you actually DID write and not realize that the "big name author" is someone they know!

Kevin said...

I get asked more often if I am related to famous older professor with same last name (I am--we're 4th cousins, but we've never met). We are actually now in similar fields, as is another scientist with the same rare last name (4th cousin once removed).

I'm in my 50s now, and I still have trouble telling whether someone is 40 or 60, so I would not be surprised by students having the same difficulty.

The stupidity of journals and indexing services that insist that a person's initials and last name are sufficient to disambiguate names should not be held against students.

John Vidale said...

With an unusual name, fairly unique because it was made up by my grandfather to escape Italy in the late 1930s, I don't get confused with elders. But one's name can be more or less helpful to a career.

For a science career, a unique, easy to pronounce, easy to spell, and memorable name is beneficial. That is, so long as one wishes people to easily recall or Google one's accomplishments. Consistent use of the middle initial used to be important to avoid losing citations in a count, but software is obviating that factor.

And changing a name on marriage can have severe citation and name recognition repercussions, of course.

Anon said...

I could very easily make this mistake, but not because I thought my professor was that old, just because I didn't take the time to figure out how old my advisor was when the paper was published (and I would find it had to believe that there is a grad student out there who hasn't extrapolated their advisor's birth year from their CV).

plam said...

Coincidentally, I have the same last name as my grand-advisor.

Anonymous said...

I can hardly hold it against students that they can't guestimate our age: to me, THEY all look like they should still be in highschool!

Anonymous said...

It may have been possible to publish at age 9, Emily Rosa did it:

Well, she was nine when she did the experiment but eleven when it was published in a medical journal.

catgirl said...

I often don't look at the dates on papers at all. Sometimes I'll notice something weird about, like an old-fashioned word, and then finally realize how old the article is.

Also, it can be extremely difficult to determine anyone's age, especially now with things like make-up, hair dye, and even plastic surgery. These things are becoming more common among both women and men, so sometimes it's hard to tell whether a person is natural and young, or done-up and older. Add this on top of the fact that everyone ages differently to begin with.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

My students really *really* like trying to guess how old I am. I find this very amusing because if they just google me and assume I didn't take time off in between degrees, it's not terribly hard to figure out!!

Anonymous said...

Another instructor at one of my schools is Irish and silver-haired. A student asked her if she'd come to America "because of that potato thing."

Nana said...

My favorite time-line story: My darling child asked me, "I know Nana wasn't here for dinosaurs, but what about Pilgrims?"

She was 7, of course.