Monday, August 31, 2009

Ayn Rand Beach Story

A few weeks ago, I was stunned by the interest in my casual mention of having an Ayn Rand Beach Story. Mostly I used the phrase in a previous post because I liked how it looked, but I do in fact have an Ayn Rand Beach Story.

It's still (barely) August and I was recently at the scene of the Ayn Rand Beach Story incident, so it's time for the story. My apologies if the actual event is anti-climactic.

I don't remember exactly how old I was when this happened, but I was likely between the ages of 15 and 17. One summer day, I was sitting on a beach near my family's house, alone, reading Atlas Shrugged.

I was not reading Ayn Rand because of some teenage Ayn Rand phase. I was working my way through the somewhat meager but not-too-bad collection of literature in my town's public library. I'd already consumed much of the available pre-20th century literature, including Russian literature (which I'd enjoyed, so big books did not dismay me), and was then reading my way through the collection of 20th century American novels. Inevitably, I got to Ayn Rand without really knowing much about her or her philosophy.

I was reading Atlas Shrugged at a very small beach, with only a few clusters of other humans, mostly older people who occasionally arose from their beach chairs to put their toes in the water.

As one of these people -- a man -- was leaving the beach, he stopped by where I was sitting and asked: Have you gotten to The Speech yet?

I did not know what he was talking about, so I figured that either I had not gotten to The Speech yet or that The Speech was not very memorable.

I replied: No, not yet.

I don't remember if we conversed further, however briefly, but I have always felt vaguely embarrassed about the interaction. My fear is that he asked me what I thought of the book so far.

If he did, my reply was likely not very positive. I might have mentioned something about how I thought it was a bit overwrought or that the characters were kind of one-dimensional. I might not have been very articulate.

In any case, he walked on.

His companion, a woman, then came over to me and said: Do you know who he is?

No, I did not know.

She informed me: He (nodding in the direction of the man) was her (nodding at my book) best friend.

She left.

That was it, a small incident, but one that had a profound effect on me, namely that, to this day, I am totally paranoid when I read a book in public. In fact, when I was reading a book on that very beach recently, I checked to see where the author was residing now and was somewhat unnerved to learn that the author had moved from Malaysia to the US, vastly increasing the chance that the author, her relatives, or friends could be on that very beach at that moment watching me read that book, which I didn't particularly like.

On that little beach long ago, when asked what I thought of the book I was reading, I don't think I would have changed my answer to a more glowing one had I known that he was her best friend, but ever since, when asked by random strangers about a book I am reading, I always wonder if they have a hidden agenda.

Friday, August 28, 2009

On Advising

A perennial topic, perhaps even semi-annual:

Some graduate students, even some postdocs, have no idea how much work goes into advising. Yes, I know there are bad advisers in every discipline, and I know that there are advisers with big labs filled with grad worker drones who toil for years at low pay to provide some data crumbs that feed the hotshot adviser's research machine, but in my > 20 year career, I have encountered very few of these. I am very sorry for those students who endure situations such as these, and hope that they can eventually put the bad experience behind them and have a rewarding career.

My sympathy is sincere, but nevertheless I am amazed when I read or hear general statements about how much advisers benefit from the labor of students relative to the efforts of the adviser. For the many advisers who devote much time and effort to advising, it is a disservice to focus on the extreme cases and blithely state that advisers benefit more from students than students do from advisers.

The vast majority of the advisers I know spend considerable time and effort advising students and giving them the support and opportunities they need to succeed in their graduate program and beyond. Some advisers are more nurturing/sociable/friendly than others, some provide a more structured research environment than others, and some are better at fostering a student's independent research than others, but it is a very rare situation in which the overall 'benefit' that an adviser receives from a graduate student's research exceeds the effort/funding put into advising the student. Yes, I have written/ranted about this before here and in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, but it keeps popping up as a topic in comments or in real life.

That isn't meant to be a controversial statement. It is a statement based on my experience and observations at this point in my career. This doesn't make things any easier for those students in difficult or abusive advising situations, but it is important to recognize what is a normal adviser-student relation and what is abnormal and wrong.

Determining whether an adviser 'benefits' from students relative to time/effort advising or is mostly a recipient of benefits is not straightforward, as it requires comparing advising activities of both tangible (money, writing) and intangible (time, ideas, advice) sorts with the end results of students' time, efforts, and creative input.

Nevertheless, I will state this: For some students, the results of their research ideas and activities far exceed the creative input (ideas, interpretation of results) and writing provided by the adviser, but this is not the case for many students. Such independent, productive students certainly exist, and I am very happy to have encountered some. Ideally, the adviser-student relationship allows for students to be creative and independent.

Many students, however, do well, are enjoyable to advise, and teach us things in the course of their research, but it would be inaccurate for even these students to say that their tangible benefit to their advisers (in terms of results or papers) exceed what the adviser contributed to the research.

And then there are students who are a huge amount of work to advise; they might be good (or even excellent) scientists and very smart people, but they can't focus, can't write, or have some other problem that involves much time and anxiety for all concerned. They have to be carried or dragged to the finish line.

Note: I admit that having a few of this last sort can skew an adviser's opinion about adviser-student cost-benefit ratios and swamp out some of the warm and fuzzy feelings we have about our more independent students.

My point of view about adviser/student efforts stems in part from the fact that I do not sit back and watch the papers roll out of my research group. I would be quite happy if some of my students took the lead on manuscripts and wrote up some of their own research/ideas with minimal or no involvement from me (and I would therefore not be a co-author), but it is a fact that most student-authored manuscripts require my time and effort -- some more, some less. The effort is in many cases quite fun, so these statements should not be interpreted as complaints, but time and effort it is, in some a cases considerable amount.

I am sure there are many points of view depending on personal experience, the culture of different disciplines and institutions, and other factors. I certainly don't claim to be objective, being firmly on the side of Advisers of the World, but I think it can be difficult for grad students to have an informed perspective on these issues.

That probably sound patronizing, but I will provide one example to explain in part how I came to that opinion:

A PhD student I know had great difficulty focusing, organizing results and thoughts, writing, and all sorts of other important things. After many attempts at finding ways to overcome some of these problems, the adviser would sometimes step in and do whatever needed doing, especially if a deadline was looming. Whenever the adviser did this, the student always said something like "Yeah, that's exactly how I would have done it" or "That's what I was thinking too". Perhaps these statements were a way of minimizing embarrassment about the situation, but from that point on, the student would refer to text, figures, or ideas provided by the adviser as things that he/she (the student) had done. I am convinced that by the time the student graduated, the adviser's contributions were considered to be minor technical assistance. If you asked this student who had 'benefited' more from his/her research, I am sure the answer would be very different from the adviser's answer to that question.

What does that prove? Perhaps only that we are each most aware of our own efforts, whether we are adviser or student.

As I've written before (somewhere..), if we advisers just wanted efficient workers who would get a job done right the first time and move on to the next task, we wouldn't be advising students. We would hire technicians.

We advise students because it is part of what many of us love about our jobs, despite the frustrations. We do it for the many times when it does work out (for student and adviser). If you factor in these intangibles, the adviser-student relationship makes more sense than if it's considered only in terms of who 'benefits' more.

[alert: Comment moderating will be sporadic this weekend, as my ability to internet will be severely limited, but I welcome any and all comments, however hostile, except for obscene non-CPP comments and those annoying attempts to get me to post an ad]

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Summery Summary

As summers go, this summer was a good one. Compared to the rest of my year, summers are very relaxing, even though I work just as much as I do the rest of the year. The difference is that I can focus more on fewer things in the summer rather than dividing my time among many activities. Also, there are fewer stressful deadlines in the summer. And no faculty meetings.

In the summer I primarily do research (including writing) and I advise students (grad and undergrad) and postdocs. I work on many different projects, but in the summer it is like sampling an enticing buffet of fun and interesting possibilities rather than being overwhelmed by all the things that need my time and attention all at the same time.

This summer, my hope was to get 5-10 manuscripts submitted or resubmitted, some by me and some by others in my research group, as well as a proposal or two. It looks like we got 7 manuscripts (2 with me as first author) and one proposal in, but a few more manuscripts are within reach in the next month or so despite the onset of the academic year and therefore the obliteration of uninterrupted time. Overall, I am content with these results even as I feel my usual impatience about some manuscripts that have been lingering much too long in the almost-ready-to-submit state.

Whether a summer was good or not in terms of research productivity also depends on how much new work gets done, and based on that criterion I am also quite pleased with the summer.

Perhaps I should have titled this post Smug Summer Summary, though my intention is not to boast about my awesomely productive summer but to show that it is possible to feel more satisfaction for what has been accomplished than regret for what remains to be done, even when the work is infinite.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Raving Frauds (and Cats)

In The Elegance of the Hedgehog (by Muriel Barbery), a book I read this summer, one of the narrators is a 12 year old girl who writes:

My mother, who has read all of Balzac and quotes Flaubert at every dinner, is living proof every day of how education is a raving fraud. All you need to do is watch her with the cats. She's vaguely aware of their decorative potential, and yet she insists on talking to them as if they were people, which she would never do with a lamp or an Etruscan statue.

Ouch. I don't quote Flaubert at every dinner, but I do converse with my cats.

The mother in the story has previously been introduced to us in this way:

Well, my mother isn't exactly a genius, but she is educated. She has a PhD in literature. She writes her dinner invitations without mistakes and spends her time bombarding us with literary references.

Ouch again. Those sentences are a concise reminder that having a PhD doesn't mean you are a genius or that people will necessarily be impressed with an advanced degree.

Maybe someday my daughter will write a memoir that will include something like this:

Well, my mother isn't exactly a genius, but she is educated. She has a PhD in Science. She writes her Facebook status updates without mistakes and spends her time ranting about how all fruits and vegetables are organic and nothing is 'chemical free'.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Abstract Impressionism

A manuscript that I recently reviewed had a truly awful abstract. I thought, based only on reading the abstract: There is no way that this is going to be a good or interesting paper.

And I was right, at least in this case.

There are also cases in which I have read the abstract of a paper and thought: This is going to be interesting. And then the rest of the paper was disappointing and/or ghastly.

If you've been following along, so far we have two cases: abstract bad --> paper bad; and abstract good --> paper bad. Certainly there are many cases of abstract good --> paper good, but what about abstract bad --> paper good? I think the latter might be the rarest of the 4 cases.

Papers and proposals might be different with respect to abstract/text quality correspondence. In the case of proposals, there have been proposals of which I was initially quite skeptical, but my opinion changed for the better as I delved into the proposal more. Being skeptical, however, is a bit different from thinking from the start "This is really bad/wrong/stupid". For the most part, I think a bad start = a bad document.

The fact that I have had an initial positive impression of a paper or proposal only to have my hopes dashed by the rest of the document indicates that my abstract impression is not immobile. The fact that my change of heart tends to go in the negative direction, however, could indicate that it is easier to change a positive impression to a negative one than to erase a negative impression.

Advice I was given in my younger days -- the same advice that I repeat to my students -- is that you need to grab a reader or reviewer of a paper or proposal at the very beginning if you want them to have a positive opinion of the entire document. I suppose it's the academic version of "You don't get a second chance to make a first impression."

No one deliberately makes a boring/bad start to an important document in the hopes that the reader will change their mind later once the paper or proposal gets better further along, though sometimes I wonder whether some authors resort to this strategy out of desperation.

But are the dire predictions of manuscript and proposal rejection owing to a bad or lame start accurate? Can a negative abstract impression be converted into a positive one or is this a rare and unlikely occurrence?

Perhaps a case in which this might happen is when an author clearly doesn't know how to write an abstract but has no such trouble writing the rest of the document. Typically, though, if someone doesn't know how to write an abstract, they don't know how to write a paper or proposal. The work might be good, but you either have to care only about the data (and not any other content of the paper) or you have to know a lot about the topic already and fill in the gaps yourself.

Papers like that do have some value. I have reviewed/read some in which I was really interested in the dataset but I thought the rest of the paper was worthless. Furthermore, I have had some of my own manuscripts get review comments like "I don't believe any of the interpretations but the rest of it will be useful to those of us who know what to do with data such as these".

Note: There are constructive ways to word a statement like that, but some reviewers seem unaware of this.

It would be useful to know if bad abstract = bad paper/proposal were an immutable law of the universe because it would save a lot of time for reviewers and other readers.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Forbidden Zone

A comment on yesterday's post about professors sowing social discomfort and dread amongst the student populace raised an interesting (somewhat off-topic) question:

Should professors enter the Grad Office Zone?

Is the Grad Office Zone sacred space in which grad students should be free from professorial visits or are professor visits to grad offices a way of showing that the adviser is interactive and interested in their students' research?

I am sure there are all possible examples of professor-grad space interactions: from professors who have never and would never visit a student in a grad office to professors who naturally mingle with their students as they all work in group space; and from students who feel that there should never be professor incursions across the borders of the Grad Office Zone to those who think this is a great (or at least normal) thing for a professor to do.

There is an important structural (architectural/organizational) issue here of course: in some departments, grad offices are dispersed among other offices and labs and may actually be in the professor's solar system. In this case, professor visits to grad offices aren't an issue, though one could pose the question as to whether these clustered offices are a highly efficient way to promote interaction and productivity or whether they create constant stress and anxiety in students.

In other cases, grads are sequestered in a designated Grad Office Zone. This was the case when I was a student, but no one minded when a professor showed up for a rare visit. In fact, it was a matter of much discussion and fascination as to which professors dared enter the Grad Office Zone and which did not. There were only a few who dared, but they were respected for this. They did not visit often, but when they did they were welcome. These tended to be the professors who treated grad students as human beings, and that might have had something to do with their willingness to walk where most of their colleagues would not and also their positive reception when they did visit the Grad Office Zone.

As a professor, I visit my students in their (non-lab) offices if I have something urgent to ask or tell or show, and I don't think anything of doing so. My colleagues do the same. There is nothing unusual or sinister about going to see a student in their office.

When I go looking for a student in a grad office, I don't feel unwelcome or uncomfortable, though I suppose the nature of a professor's visit to a grad office is also relevant to the question of whether it is a good thing or a stressful thing for the student; e.g. a constructive comment, urgent question, or something interesting to show = OK, but constant biting criticism = not so great?

Another relevant structural issue is whether grads have individual offices, share with only 1-2 other people, or are in a room packed with cubicles. I have encountered all of these types at various times and I am more comfortable visiting a student in a small office than in a cubicle farm in which even a quiet conversation disturbs a lot of other students, all of whom look up whenever the door opens and listen (perhaps not by choice) to all conversations.

If grad students (or postdocs) want to discourage visits from their advisers, there are non-verbal ways to do this, as I found out inadvertently years ago as a postdoc when I (innocently) placed a large cactus on an extra desk in my office. I really thought my postdoc supervisor would see the cactus before perching on the desk and leaning back, but he did not.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

We Creep Them Out

While dining in a small restaurant not long ago, I was sitting near a group of young (twentysomething) people who were reminiscing about their college days. One of the young women said:

I, like, never talked to professors if I could help it. They creeped me out.

My initial hope was that this woman had attended a distant university or college that only employed disturbing and erratic faculty, but the restaurant in question is about a meter from a particular university campus, the one at which I happen to work, and subsequent clues in the conversation indicated that she was in fact creeped out by her professors at MyUniversity. I am not objective about this issue, but I don't think the professors at MyUniversity are, as a population, particularly creepy.

When I was a student I had a few professors who creeped me out, but they did so on an individual basis owing to particular incidents in which they displayed creep behavior. The fact that this young woman avoided talking to all of her professors strongly suggests that she had trouble dealing with professors because they were professors.

I suppose I should be outraged on behalf of the professors of the world. What if she were creeped out by other employment sectors? Would that be socially acceptable? What if she had announced that she is creeped out by telemarketers who repeatedly call during dinner? OK, never mind about that. But professors?

Mostly I am sad about her view of professors. I am sad that this person went through at least 4 (and probably more) years of university feeling very uncomfortable with every single professor, to the point of not wanting to talk to them. What would it have taken to de-creep her feelings towards the professoriate?

I don't know, but this incident has strengthened my resolve about one aspect of my teaching. I am not teaching any gigaclasses this year so it is within the realm of the possible that I will have a conversation with each of my students, including freshmen. My goal is to have a conversation (ideally about Science) with each and every student so that each student will see that it is at least possible to have a conversation with a professor, perhaps even an interesting conversation, but that might be asking for too much; and then, if we do converse, statements such as the one I overheard in the restaurant can be averted.

In a rare and fleeting cynical moment, I could suppose that, years from now, a reminiscing student might say "I never talked to my professors if I could help it, but there was that one strange woman who kept trying to say something to me, though I was never sure what she was saying. It creeped me out."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Asking 4 It

Thanks to readers who alerted me to the 17 August demonstration on the Carleton (Ottawa) University campus to protest the university's stance in the case of a woman science student who was assaulted while working late in a lab in 2007. In response to a lawsuit filed by the student, the university noted that the "victim failed to prevent the assault", which, according to reports, was quite violent. This blame-the-victim response by the university is disturbing and unacceptable.

More info on the case is here, including links to news stories and legal documents.

As someone who often works late at night on campus, security is a major concern for me. I also worry about my students and others in my group who work late on campus. I have touched on this topic a few times, including:

- the time I became extremely upset when a tech set up a webcam that anyone with an internet connection could use to watch researchers in a lab 24/7, creating an efficient way for people to see when a woman was working alone in the lab late at night or on weekends. I objected in a rather vehement way and the tech (who had not thought about the implications of the webcam and sincerely thought it would be cool) disconnected the system.

- when a scary incident at my home made me reflect on security issues in general and how to teach my daughter about being safe without living in constant fear.

- when a campus police officer who came to apprehend a strange, thieving, lying person who had been giving me trouble on and off for months blamed me for the situation because I leave my office door open when I am in the office during the day on weekdays.

According to an Ottawa newspaper article about the Carleton case:

The university alleges the science student chose to remain on the premises alone and chose not to lock the door to the laboratory in which she was working. She knew, or ought to have known, the steps she could take to notify the safety department of her intention to work late on her own, Carleton says.

There are many disturbing things about those statements and other aspects of the incident, including:

- the statement that the student chose to remain on the premises. Apparently the professor left at 11:30 pm and the student stayed on. There's no way to know how much choice was involved in the student's staying to work. Even if the professor didn't explicitly say "You must stay here and keep working or else", the student may have felt the need to stay and continue working for any number of reasons common to students involved in research. Choice isn't really the right word to use in the context of a student's decision about how much/when to work. As a professor, I choose to work at night in my office because it's the best way for me to get done all the things I need to get done. Does that really mean that my university has no responsibility for my safety when I am working in a campus building at night?

- the student chose not to lock the door of the laboratory. Why did the lab not have a door that automatically locked when closed? I work in a locked room when I am on campus at night but it is not possible to spend 100% of my time in a locked room: I have to get to and from the locked room when I arrive and depart, and I may need to travel from one locked room to another. My expectation, therefore, is that the building will be secure so that I can be safe when walking in the corridors at night, but I know from long (but fortunately not tragic) experience that this expectation is not always met.

- The student should have notified a university safety department of her intention to work late on her own. Does Carleton U really have a safety department that checks regularly on all people who inform them in advance that they will be working late? Presumably there are students and others working late in most science labs most days, as well as in other departments, so the fact that a student was working late in a chemistry lab should not be such an unusual event that requires a special call in advance to a safety department.

Administrators in my department know that people (students, postdocs, faculty) work late on campus on a regular basis. Do we each need to tell them -- or a university office -- every time we work late on campus? If that is indeed the rule at some universities, perhaps every student, researcher, and faculty should call the relevant office every time they plan to work late at night or on a weekend. How would the university deal with the hundreds of calls? What would they do with the data? Perhaps some universities have no idea how many people are working late in campus buildings. In an ideal world, information about the number of people working in campus buildings at night would be used to improve security plans and equipment on campus rather than solidify a system that allows universities to blame the victim if someone is attacked while working late.

[Note: I'm not really back yet. Regular posts will probably resume later this week though]

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Shelf Fodder

Some of my colleagues like to have bound copies of graduate student theses on their shelves; others hate those ugly bound things and just want a pdf.

Note: In the US, theses are ugly hardbound things with the student name and project title. I prefer the style at some European universities of producing a paperback book with a nice cover, but this has not yet caught on here.

Despite their lack of aesthetic appeal and the unfortunate formatting requirements that make the bound thesis much bigger than it needs to be, I like to have at least some bound copies lined up on my shelf. It is a nice, tangible reminder that some students do in fact survive working with me and have accomplished something.

Some students (typically MS students) don't want to order bound copies, so for them I only have a pdf and that's fine. I certainly am not going to force every student to order bound copies just because I like to have an array of theses on my shelf.

So it's time for a poll:

Do you have (or want to have) bound theses on your shelf?
Yes - I want the bound copies on my shelf
No - I only want e-versions of theses
Either is OK (as long as some are bound copies) free polls

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Do-It-Yourself Glass Ceiling

We interrupt this angst-ridden man-hating vacation to bring you this headline: Study: Women Create 'their own glass ceiling'. The mindless poll, promised for today, will have to wait until tomorrow.

Meanwhile, we can ponder this excerpt from the article about the study:

"Women have imposed their own glass ceiling, and the question is why," said Scott Taylor, an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico Anderson School of Management who conducted the study.

No, Scott, the answer is why you chose to interpret your results that way.

Taylor says the findings could indicate why many women don't rise to head companies or why there is a wage disparity between men and women.

That's a bit of a leap. All we have to do is ask and we can get paid more and promoted more? Problem solved? How cool is that?

And apparently middle aged and older women are better at creating their own glass ceilings than are younger women. That's encouraging, sort of. In the article (not the study), there are some incoherent quotations from people who say that the media images of glamorous and dumpy older women make real women not ask for raises. Or something like that.

The basic findings of the study are not surprising: women underestimate themselves and are less assertive about asking for raises and so on. But it does not follow that women are therefore creating their own glass ceilings. And I don't think a blame-the-women approach should be repackaged as "let's try to understand all the factors" (that contribute to disparities between how men and women fare in their careers).

Taylor will present his findings Tuesday in Chicago at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management..

If anyone is going to be at this meeting in Chicago today and if it's not too late, maybe someone can ask Professor Taylor if he has any alternative hypotheses that might also explain his data.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Home Angst Home

The instinct to return to one's ancestral home seems to be quite strong in many different creatures, but I wonder if any of those birds or butterflies or sea creatures would rather not return home but somehow feel that they should.

Yes, it's that time of year again, almost. Time to trek back to the old homestead and visit relatives and feel like an eccentric loser.

Why do I do it? Why do I go back if I dread it each year before I go and don't enjoy it much while I'm there? Well, of course it's because I love (some of) my relatives, I want my daughter to know and love this part of her family, and I want her to have some connection with that place, which is beautiful.

I think I would like my visits 'home' a lot more if I only saw my mother and my aunts and we could just hang out together chatting and walking and laughing together. But that's not what happens.

Here's what it will be like:

My uncles will sit on the deck drinking and talking about sports, war, and religion (occasionally telling crude jokes when they think no one is listening) and the women will cook for them and bring them beverages and snacks.

One of my uncles will ask me if I'm still wasting taxpayer money on my "research" that is on topics so obscure no one could possibly care about such things. Everyone will laugh.

Discussion of my career will remind another uncle to tell me about his son who spent his teens and twenties drunk and/or stoned but who now devotes himself to bringing Bibles to desperately poor people in other countries. He will say "Now that's important work."

My step-father will ask me if I've "written anything" lately, but he doesn't really want to know if I've written anything lately. There is no point in mentioning my scientific articles or books and I am definitely not going to mention that I have been writing occasional columns for The Chronicle of Higher Education because my step-father's question is just his way of introducing the topic of his son who writes for The New York Times.

And we will spend vast amounts of time talking about my brother, the high-ranking military officer, of whom I am very fond and proud even though he outranks me in the family because he is (1) male and therefore intrinsically more special, and (2) in the military. The military is #1 in my family; religion is #2; and some male relatives have even reached a pinnacle of awesomeness by becoming ministers after retiring as high-ranking officers in the military.

Being a Female Science Professor in my family is considered weird and somewhat pathetic. At least I'm good at it. That's something..

At 'home', I go into a kind of Zen-coma in which I let it all wash over me as much as possible. I breathe slowly and evenly, I don't talk much, I go with the flow, I read, I do some manuscript and proposal reviews (though I read them over before I send them in case my feeling of oppression inadvertently seeps into my reviews), I help out in the kitchen, and I count the days.

I have also developed the strategy of taking a vacation in the middle of the vacation. After a dose of relatives, my daughter and I spend a few days together in a favorite place where I spent a lot of time as a child. It is just far enough from Relative Central that we stay in a motel, but not so far that they can't visit us for an afternoon or for dinner. I bookend the stressful parts of the visit on either end of that part of the trip, thereby saving at least a portion of my sanity.

I will not blog during my family trip but I will post something quick tomorrow (with a poll!), and then I will be back next week, just in time to obsess about the looming fall term.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Academic Gifts, The End

The Academic Gifts exercise continues. Some of the ones in this group are gems.

Reminder: 1 point for relevant to YOU, no points if irrelevant. See previous 3 posts if you are confused.

1 ... Happy Couple Classroom PDA (and even worse)

1 ... Dysfunctional Colleague Who Pretends Not to See You (In fact, another colleague and I were discussing the other day whether Our Colleague Who Pretends Not to See Anybody could be a department chair and keep this habit)

1 ... Subjectless, Greetingless & Signatureless E-mail from Student (Is a greetingless email worse than one that greets you as Yo Prof!?) -- note: this "gift" on FB has been sent more than 7600 times, which is a lot

0 ... Hideous Milkcrate Bookshelves (I think I might prefer these to some of the metal kind, though)

1 ... Colleague with a Mid-life Crisis (I want to have one of these so I can get a nicer car)

1 ... TA Who Does Absolutely Nothing (OK to substitute RA here)

1 ... Ubiquitous Department Gossipmonger (but that's OK because we talk about this person all the time too)

0 ... Nympho Librarian (?)

0 ... Last Ream of Paper on Campus Due to Budget Crisis (but I might be able to add this point next week)

0 ... Empty Classroom the Week Before Spring Break (not my students)

0 ... Overprotective Librarian (What's with the librarians? All the ones I've encountered have been very nice and helpful.)

1 ... Urgent Request for Letter of Recommendation from Mediocre Student

1 ... Student with Impressive Record of Absenteeism

1 ... Well-rested Colleague on Sabbatical

0 ... Overcrowded Faculty Parking Lot

0 ... Only Reason to go to Talk: Free Food

1 ... Five-paragraph Essay (my first task when teaching freshmen to write is to kill their tendency to write 5-paragraph essays)

0 ... Invitation to a Frat Party (but my husband got one not long ago)

1 ... Colleague "Secretly" Dating Student (this one isn't funny)

0 ... Post-tenure Visible Tattoo

1 ... Lingering Microwave Lunch Stench Trapped in Windowless Office (or in the corridors)

1 ... Campus Building Requiring Many Keys to Enter (or keycards or codes or retina scans)

1 ... End-of-semester madness

1 ... Reply All to the Department Listserv

1 ... 0%: Your Most Recent Merit Raise

1 ... Absurd Number of Books to Read for Comprehensive Exams (and journal articles)

1 ... Students Asking to Borrow Your Stapler

0 ... Shock-inducing Course Attendance Policy

1 ... Encore: "My Grandmother Passed Away" (presumably this is the other grandmother)

0 ... Maladjusted Child of Two Academic Parents (my child is of course perfectly adjusted)

1 ... Repeatedly Forwarded Departmental Email

0 ... Honorary Doctorate

1 ... Departmental Crazy Genius

1 ... Grad Student Who Lives in his/her Office (not me, but I've known a few)

1 ... Annoying Campus Evangelist

OK, so how did you do?

I got 101/143. Although I did omit a few of the "gifts", of the 143 I did include, 71% of them are relevant to my academic existence. That's a bit chilling, considering that most of the "gifts" focus on the bizarre and annoying aspects of academic life.

And now what shall we add to our gift registry? How about:

Bearded Colleague Wearing Jacket with Suede Elbow Patches

All Male Hiring Committee

Grad Students with Writers Block

Student Assuming You Must be an Adjunct Because you are Female

Department Chair Who Assigns Clerical Tasks to Female Faculty

Retired Professor Who Takes Years to Move Out of His/Her Office

Male Committee Member Who Accuses Female Committee Members of Being "Biased" Whenever They Say Anything Positive About Female Candidates

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Academic Gifts, Part 3

The game continues.. although it will end tomorrow: Give yourself 1 point for yes yes yes that happened to you or is somehow relevant to your life; zero for unrelated to your personal existence.

0 ... Office Door Abuse of Personal Politics (is this a humanities thing?)

0 ... Office Door Silent Protest (ditto?)

0 ... Crushing Mound of Student Debt (I paid all my student loans off after a few years, so I can't say the debt was crushing.. a benefit of being in Science and only having loans from my undergrad years. In fact, I scrambled to pay my loans off early because the company that had bought my loans from a company that had bought my loans from the nice little neighborhood bank from which I originally obtained them kept sending me fierce letters demanding that I pay back loans to attend schools I had never even heard of, much less attended, and I was sick of dealing with this incompetent company.)

1 ... Ancient Malfunctioning Lab Equipment

1 ... Asbestos Tile Ceiling

1 ... Walk Through Campus Construction

1 ... Sick Student Who Insists on Coming to Class (and then there are those who want to show you the rash from their tick-borne illness or tell you how many times they vomited this very morning)

1 ... Endless Student Grammatical Violations

1 ... Faculty Input Ignored by Administration

1 ... Over-Eager Assessment Guru (does anyone want to have a break-out session and discuss how we're all doing with the deliverables that we were tasked to produce in this blog post?)

1 ... Service Requirement that Doesn't Count for Tenure Anyway

1 ... Ultra-Religious Student

0 ... Disappearing Dissertation Advisor (I quite enjoyed my advisor's sabbatical, but otherwise he was ubiquitous)

1 ... Acronym Hell

1 ... Coffee!

1 ... Networked Printer Just Down the Hall (I gave up on that one circa 1998)

1 ... Annual Faculty Retreat (shudder shudder shudder)

0 ... Airline Ticket that Blew Your Entire Travel Budget

1 ... Disappearing Office Items (some have been stolen by criminally insane postdocs, others I seem to lend and forget)

0 ... Prematurely Required Bifocals

1 ... Undisclosed Vegetarian at Conference Dinner (and vegans!)

1 ... Syllabus-writing-induced headache (I just got one of these after being forced to re-write my syllabus 3 times or else my course's designation as fulfilling a certain important requirement would be eliminated. Jerks.)

0 ... Demolishing Q&A at Job Talk (I have witnessed these but was fortunate to avoid them myself)

1 ... Dried-out Whiteboard Markers

1 ... Student Who Tries to Friend You on Facebook

1 ... The Head-Nodder (in department seminars..)

0 ... Office in Janitor's Closet

0 ... Nine-digit Photocopier Code

1 ... Student Who Cries, Begging for Extra Credit

1 ... Mac-illiterate Colleague

0 ... Bar Encounter with One of Your Students (though I saw one in the produce section of the grocery store this week; does that count?)

1 ... Chalk-dust-covered Sweater

1 ... Office Neighbor Who Needs to Use His/Her Inside Voice (especially when yelling at their graduate students)

0 ... Healthy Supply of Red Pens (I can never find one when I need it)

0 ... Campus Parking Ticket (though I have colleagues who get to check this one.. and I have a spouse who will never give money to our grad school because of his anger over parking tickets)

1 ... Permanent Marker on Whiteboard

0 ... Inevitable Student Fans of Ayn Rand (though some day I may tell my Ayn Rand beach story)

1 ... Post-partying Zombified Friday A.M. Class

1 ... Journal Reviewer with Axe to Grind

1 ... Task of Reviewing a Horrible Journal Submission

1 ... Student Who Mistakes Office Hours for Therapy

My subtotal to date: 78 out of 108

Is anyone over 100 yet?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Academic Gifts, Part 2

Below you will find a continuation of yesterday's post. Give yourself 1 point if the listed item (derived from some Academic Gifts created by someone else on Facebook) is or has been relevant to your life, zero if not. My personal points are indicated in the list. At the end of this fascinating exercise, we can all compare notes.

1 ... Horrendous Conference Hotel Room

1 ... Another Master's Thesis Defense

1 ... Creepy Visiting Faculty Member

1 ... Disastrous Hotel Room Interview (I am still dealing with the emotional scars from one of these in the early 90's)

1 ... Overburdened Administrative Assistant (well, some of them are.. another is a hostile zombie)

1 ... Creepy, Overzealous Textbook Reps (some are overzealous and aggressive, some are passive, some are passive-aggressive)

1 ... Colleague Who Stands Too Close (I include here the ones who give unsolicited hugs.. and more)

1 ... Confusing Library Stacks (Yes, I do go to the real, physical library from time to time)

0 ... Library Toilet Cubicle (???)

0 ... Accrued Library Fines (I don't have any, but one of my graduating students recently realized that you can't graduate if you don't pay these and the library at some point figures out the value of each unreturned book and counts that in the fine and science books are expensive.)

1 ... Dead-Grandmother Excuse

1 ... No-climate-control Office Space (though it sorts of depends on what you mean by 'control')

1 ... Ancient Fluorescent Office Lighting

0 ... Doctor-prescribed Mood Stabilizers (I get my caffeine over the counter)

0 ... Student Who Supplies Other "Mood Stabilizers" (??)

1 ... Standard, Machine-read Faculty Evaluation Form (though some courses have online evals)

0 ... Bored S.O. Dragged to Department Party

1 ... Pile of Overdue Book Reviews (substitute Manuscripts/Proposals for Book Reviews.. I only have 2 right now, is that a pile?)

1 ... Hefty Merit Pay Raise (well, I've gotten these in the past once or twice; I'll give myself a point here, but I'd rather have a raise, any raise)

0 ... Faculty Parking Lot Closed for Home Game (this used to be an issue at one university but I would tell the parking attendant that my lab was going to blow up and kill lots of people if I didn't get to it really really soon and they always let me in free)

1 ... Rejected Grant Application

1 ... Annoying Full Mailboxes of Colleagues on Leave (more annoying are the full mailboxes of colleagues not on leave)

0 ... Adjunct Faculty Appointment

0 ... 8 AM Class

0 ... Friday Evening Conference Session

0 ... Student with a Crush

0 ... Shared Office Space (except when I was on sabbatical..)

1 ... Helicopter Parents

1 ... Colleague Who Knows Roberts Rules of Order by Heart

1 ... Contentious Faculty Meetings

1 ... Awkward Department Cocktail Party (or other social functions)

1 ... Egregious Vanity Publication (The FSP Book!)

0 ... Inherited Filing System

1 ... Two Big (Male) Egos Vying in a Department Meeting (this would be entertaining if it didn't make the meetings longer; I added the parentheses to Male, by the way.)

1 ... Unreasonable Committee Demands (but there is hope)

1 ... Coach Who Makes Roughly 50X as Much as You

1 ... Hiring Freeze

0 ... Excessive Tenure Requirements

1 ... Awkward Spousal Hiring Scenario

1 ... Two-Body Problem

1 ... Mandatory Department Photo for Website (or other purposes, none of which are likely to be particularly effective as a recruiting tool for students, or anyone for that matter)

1 ... Non-academic Friends Who Think You Have Summers Off (and relatives!)

My score so far: 50/67
More to come tomorrow.. there are an insane number of these gifts on Facebook.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Academic Gifts, Part 1

It is interesting and eerie how many of the Facebook "gifts"* for academics are familiar elements of my life, even though the gifts seem to have been created by a liberal arts professor. Here is a self-graded summer homework assignment: look at the array of gifts listed below and give yourself 1 point (NO EXTRA CREDIT, but some substitutions allowed) for each one that is or has been an actual element of your experience with academe.

In this case, the one with the most points loses.. as you will see when you look at the list.

[* Explanation for those not on Facebook: the "gifts" are not real, they are just little pictures with a caption and you electronically "give" these "gifts" to "friends", if they choose to accept them and thereby sign away all their FB page content and personal info to some unknown entity. Many gifts have "themes" related to various geographic, cultural, sports, or employment sectors.]

As it turns out, the number of academic gifts available is rather immense, so instead of doing this all in one post, I am going to divide it up (i.e. drag it out). If you want to play along, you should keep a tally of how many points you get each day. I will indicate my own number of points in the left column next to the name of the academic "gift".

1 = relevant to my academic existence now or in the past;

0 = not relevant, not part of my experience, or something I have blocked out and therefore have no conscious recollection
of it

I may omit a few "gifts" that might anonymity-compromising if I indicated my score.

Day 1 List

1 ... 80 Freshmen Composition Papers (if I can substitute > 150-200 science exams that are graded by hand or 20 freshman science essays to be graded (by me) each week)

1 ... Annoying know-it-all Grad Student

1 ... Idiot Chairperson (but I'm not saying that my current chair is an idiot, just that I have experienced one at some point in my academic career)

1 ... Boring Faculty Meeting (I wish I could get extra credit for this one)

0 ... 4-4 Teaching Load (I love the image that goes along with this gift and I love that I can give myself a zero for this one)

0 ... Hip, Vacuous Queer Theorists

1 ... Windowless Office (happily in the past, not the present)

0 ... Dorky Medievalists (I considered substituting the scientific equivalent of this, as I believe it would not be difficult or inaccurate to make a comparison with some of my colleagues in certain subfields, but for now I will mark this one as zero points for me)

0 ... Embittered Marxist (ditto) -- do Embittered Sexists count?

1 ... Inaccurate Footnote (I would substitute inaccurate or missing citation here)

1 ... Grade-grubbing Student

1 ... Overbearing, Maladjusted Colleague (can I have a point for each one?)

1 ... "That Guy" (interpret how you wish, I suppose)

1 ... Unnecessary Freud References (substitute reference to Einstein or other scientist with cosmic fame, including the Einstein reference that I personally hate the most)

1 ... Enthralled Class (the image that accompanies this gift strongly suggests it is sarcastic)

1 ... Sentence in Outrageous Academese (I assume this means other people's sentences)

1 ... Crappy Office Chair (and desk)

1 ... Obsolete Classroom Technology

1 ... Another Freakin' Powerpoint (Yes, but...)

1 ... Students Texting in Class

1 ... Vanishing TIAA-CREF Account (I have a very sad story about this, actually)

1 ... Condescending IT Guy

1 ... Colleague Most Likely to (Mis)behave Like a Philip Roth Character (alas, this one transcends the divide between humanities and science)

1 ... Vengeful Student Evaluation

1 ... Permanently Malfunctioning Photocopier (OMG, I thought it was just me)

If you have a high score so far, are you feeling happy that so many others have the same experience and we can all bond over our misery, or does this fact make your blood run cold?

The list will continue tomorrow..

Monday, August 03, 2009

The Change

One of the reasons it is no picnic working with me is that I like to get things done at a somewhat rapid pace that is not always compatible with the workstyles, lifestyles, and priorities of others. I hope that I have not been too obnoxious too often over the years, but I know that there are times when I have been.

But I have calmed down a bit over the years, although I noticed this only very recently. Perhaps the change was recent or perhaps it was so gradual that I didn't perceive it. The change did not occur when I got tenure and it did not even occur when I was promoted to Professor. It is even more recent than that and not related to anxiety about my career, although there was certainly an element of that earlier in my career.

I think mostly I just like to get things done and, if there are exciting results to report, I like to write them up and get them out there. That hasn't changed, but I think it is possible to be a bit mellower about work while still being as interested in it as ever.

Example: In the past, if a colleague wrote to me and said "I got the revised manuscript you just sent me but I won't be able to look at it for 2-3 weeks", I would have been in agony.

But now this: A few weeks ago, in early July, I sent a manuscript to a co-author for comments and he wrote back saying he would be able to look at it sometime after July 27. When I got his email I was disappointed at the delay but I thought "OK, that's not so bad, just a couple of weeks."

That's how I knew I had changed.

Now it is August and I have not heard from this colleague and I have not even written to him reminding him to look at the manuscript. That is further evidence that I have changed.

I was very aware when July 27 came (and went) and I have thought about writing to him every day since July 27, so I haven't changed completely. And if I don't hear from him in a day (or two), I am going to send him a reminder. He did say "sometime" after July 27 (unspecified), but maybe he can specify now.

Another reason I was thinking about this general topic is because a young colleague of mine is the exact same way that I used to be. We zap manuscript drafts back and forth to each other at a rate that makes us both very happy, and we are both currently waiting on another co-author who just told us that he will require several weeks to get back to us with comments on a recent draft. My colleague is in an agony.

I am not in agony, though I did sigh deeply when I found out we'd have to wait a few weeks.

I am definitely not saying that I am calm about submitting and revising manuscripts at a slower pace than I would prefer -- certain colleagues who read this would no doubt choke on their lattes and be compelled to comment if they thought I was saying this. I am, however, saying that I am calmer, and I suppose that is a good thing.