Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Woman of Mystery

Some people are happy to have their daily/weekly schedule posted where it can be seen by everyone or by a particular group, and this can be very useful for organizing meetings and such. For some people, having a viewable schedule is even required as part of their job.

I recognize the practicality of a viewable schedule, but I would never voluntarily and routinely post my schedule other than for the short-term purpose of scheduling a meeting or exam within some specified time frame.

Why not? Some of my reasons are somewhat rational, and some are not. The semi-rational reasons relate to the fact that my schedule is a moving target, with meetings, appointments, and urgent tasks appearing daily. I can set aside time for essential commitments as needed, but the apparent blank spaces on my schedule are not really blank and I don't want any more of them filled in than necessary.

My students can find me when they need to -- my door is almost always open when I am in my office -- and students know they can stop by whenever they have questions or topics to discuss. They don't need to see my schedule.

I can't really explain the irrational reasons (by definition?), but I did have a rather formative, early-career experience that may explain some of it.

One day when I was looking for one of my grad students in his office, which was at one end of a lab room, I saw something that looked like this on a chalkboard near his desk:


8:27 AM: FSP arrives in office, checks email
8:42 AM: FSP on phone with colleague X
8:55 AM: FSP at computer/typing
9:00-10:00 AM: FSP teaching (SCI123, room 10)
10:00-10:06 AM: FSP outside classroom, answers question from students
10:06-10:09 AM: FSP talks to Z in office, checks mailbox
10:10 AM: back in office, checks email
10:20 AM: FSP goes to library
10:55 AM: FSP returns (not carrying any books)

My first thought was: OK... so maybe he was trying to find a time when we could meet (????). As far as I knew, we never had trouble finding a time to chat, so I wasn't sure why the detailed accounting was necessary. I asked him about it, and he said he just liked to keep track of things. I decided not to worry about it. I was more worried about the fact that he was making no progress on his research.

I got more worried when a colleague asked me if I knew that this student spent a lot of time just standing outside my office door, out of my sight, apparently listening to my phone conversations and taking notes.

And then this student, some others, and I visited another research lab for a few days. When we were done and I was checking over the car, I saw an unfamiliar notebook and I opened it to see whose it was. It was my student's, and, on the first page, I saw that he had itemized the things in my suitcase. At some point, he had opened my suitcase while we were traveling, and he had written down what was in it.

When I asked him about this, he said that he was very interested in what it was like to be a professor, and he was accumulating as much information as he could, including what I brought on research trips. He also said that I wasn't doing a good job of being a mentor. A good mentor would tell him these things so he didn't have to get the information himself. He did not think he should have to ask. He saw absolutely nothing wrong with going through my suitcase (secretly).

Our adviser-student relationship went downhill fast, and it was all very unpleasant, especially since I was an assistant professor and had not yet established a track record of successfully advising students, sane or otherwise.

This student wanted to know what it was like being a professor: how much time I spent on certain tasks, how I organized my files, what was I doing when I was in my office, how many socks did I bring on research trips etc. He was much less interested in doing research, although being a professor at a university happens to involve quite a lot of research.

You can wear the same pair of socks every day on a research trip if you want, but more important is why you are making that trip, what you do on the trip, and what you take away from the trip. He was not so interested in those aspects of being a professor, and that may explain in part why he never became a professor.

My ex-student wondered: What do professors do with all that time when they weren't in a classroom teaching or in a faculty meeting seething? Although his methods of finding out the answer were disturbing, it's a fair question, and one that lots of people ask.

Yet I think my student realized that carefully documenting my activities still didn't give a complete picture, and thus his methods escalated. I had some suspicions that he was also rummaging around in my computer when I wasn't in the office, probably just to find out what I was doing (and not to steal anything or destroy anything), but even then I think there were still gaps in his knowledge of What Professors Do All Day.

I value the fact that, on at least some days, I have a bit of flexibility in my working hours. I like that I can decide whether to spend a certain 'free' hour preparing for class, meeting with a graduate student, talking with colleagues, or working on a paper.

Perhaps I would be more OK about routinely posting my schedule if (1) none of the people viewing my schedule were bizarre intrusive sneaks; and (2) there were a way to label time in which I am extremely busy, but just not with any particular thing.

Mostly, though, I'd rather just reveal my schedule as necessary to find a time for a meeting or other event. Other than that, I'd prefer to be mysterious, leaving everyone wondering what I'm really doing while I'm glaring at my computer, talking with a colleague in a cafe, or wandering around campus.

By producing papers, proposals/grants, and students, I think I show well what I am doing overall, and that seems like more important information than what I am doing at 3:00 on Wednesday.


Anonymous said...

While that story is incredibly creepy, I can't help but think that one could make some interesting spreadsheets and pie charts from those notebooks.

Mathias Ricken said...

My goodness, FSP! That is by far the creepiest thing I have read in a long time.

If you permit my curiosity, how long ago was this, and how did your student-advisor relationship end?

Anonymous said...

I used to object to having my schedule posted, and I quickly refused to have anything more to do with the university's calendar system once staff people started scheduling meetings for me without clearing them with me first.

I now post my weekly schedule of classes and meetings with students on my lab group web page, where it is easy to find, as I have about 19 hours a week blocked out for those things (including every afternoon), so students can't just drop in and hope to find me available. As I'm grad director and often need to be found for a quick advising session or signature, having my schedule be publicly readable (but NOT writable) is useful. I only make my regular weekly appointments visible: one-off appointments do not appear.

In order to have some research time in big enough blocks to be useful, I work from home one day a week.

Greg said...

I don't post my schedule either for many of the same reasons.

That student sounds very creepy. Did he get a job with the FBI?

David S said...

I agree that I would not want my schedule to be available to all, and I would certainly not want someone to be able to add things to it without asking.

I think it's something to do with not wanting to be viewed as some kind of physical resource that can be booked up. I am not a room or a piece of equipment.

RSB said...

Eek! That is pretty stalker-like behavior. I hope he left quietly.

Jen said...

Where I teach, we are required to post our schedules on our door. Among the required items are courses we teach, office hours, dept. faculty meetings, and the weekly dept. seminar. All of this information is entered into a centralized system, and a schedule is spit out (info such as dept. seminars are auto-filled by the system). This way, there is uniformity in how faculty display their schedules. Thankfully, I don't have to list my next doctor's appointment (although one of Dean's recent messages implies that this will soon be a requirement). Although I'm not quite at the point of feeling micromanaged to death, it is starting to head in that direction.

Anonymous said...

I'm impressed at your high level of tolerance. After the first incident I would have asked the students in no uncertain terms to stop whatever it is he's doing. After the notebook/suitcase incident I would kick him out of the lab, keeping the notebook and his lack of progress as evidence. He was clearly exhibiting pathological behavior by stalking you like that, I don't buy the "I want to know what it's like to be a professor" bit. What relevance do the contents of your suitcase have for this? Creepy.

Whatever happened to the student?

Anonymous said...

I think having had a student stalk you early in your career is a very rational explanation for not wanting to publish your schedule.

Anonymous said...

Right now I am viewing all of my colleagues calendars and am about to schedule a meeting for later today. They have the option to suggest a new rime/place/date. Thissystem works great. I have learned to manage my time very well. If I have an hour to work between meetings I will get stuff done. There are ground rules though, my time in the lab is always blocked off, my classes are also blocked off. Also, before 8am is off limits (I get to work at 6 so I have at least 2 hours a day of uninterrupted time). After 5 is off limits as well.

I suggest all of you people against shared writable calendars to give it a try for one month, I am sure you will fall in love.... I did after I fought it for years.

Anonymous said...

We have calendars, and we get chided when they're not up to date, but they're just on Outlook shared with the department, so they're not exactly posted anywhere public. I don't mind so much, because even if the schedule *were* public, I'd just block off lumps of time here and there with things like "paper writing," "getting stuff done," or just "busy," since no one is particular about what we actually write on the calendar. :)

What bugs me more, actually, is when people don't *use* my calendar. I'll be out for a couple days attending something, and when I come back, I'll have colleagues say things like, "Where have you been? I've been looking for you for x project." And whatever I was out for is clearly marked on my calendar and has been for weeks. (Not to mention that if said colleague just emailed me like a normal person, they probably would have had their answer already, me being out or not.)

Anonymous said...


I used to wonder what my PhD advisor did at her computer. Then she would email out completely non-research related emails or videos. Didn't help my opinion of her work ethic. :-)

Edward said...

Maybe this spying was a very strange form of procrastination.

When I was a student the head of the department I was in did not have email so that he didn't have to reply to messages immediately.

Edward said...

I bet people have done some pretty strange things to procrastinate.

FrauTech said...

Wow that's not him wanting to know how to be a professor, that's him demonstrating stalker-like and mentally unstable behavior. I hope you were able to get him out of there without any problems for you.

My last job we used to have to move little magnetic dots to show whether we were "in" or not, and if we left for coffee or lunch had to write where on a whiteboard. I love the freedom of not having to tell a whole office where I am now. The calendar program we use means appointments will show up as me being "busy" but without me having to say doing what or where.

Alyssa said...

Wow - that is pretty creepy. I would also like to know how this relationship ended.

Back to the topic - a professor that I regularly have meetings with sends out his weekly schedule, but instead of listing specifics, it just lists times of when he is busy and when he is not. That might be an option when one has to give over a schedule.

Female Science Professor said...

Stalking as a form of procrastination?

The creepy student switched advisors; the new advisor took him on knowing the full story. Then the new advisor moved to another university, taking the student along. The student doesn't seem to have gotten a degree ever, but I don't know what happened with the new advisor/university.

Anonymous said...

That's a terrible story, and I agree with the commenter who suggested it's a perfectly rational reason to be hesitant about publicly sharing one's schedule.

We have a university calendar system that administrators seem to use and professors don't. I don't use it because it's bulky and awkward, and I prefer to keep my schedule private. I did have a bizarre experience recently in which some administrative staff wanted to schedule a meeting with me and another professor, and they kept scheduling meetings for us without telling us, assuming we could attend, because our university calendars were absolutely blank. Each time we would say "We can't meet then" or "Sorry, I'm teaching then," but they kept doing it. Finally I suggested they just send around a few possibilities to see when we could meet rather than scheduling meetings for us. You'd think they would have figured out that we don't use the calendar system since our calendars were completely blank.

Anonymous said...

As a grad student I think that profs and grad students should use shared calendars, we both work for a business, the university, and we should act like we are at a business and use the latest technology.

Principle Investigator said...

"and that may explain in part why he never became a professor." Hee!

What a whackjob.

Edward said...

"Stalking as a form of procrastination?"

I am not justifying what he did, but it has an explanation whatever that might be.

One response might have been to direct this fellow to the student mental health clinic.

Anonymous said...

The idea in shared schedules is to post when you are available and when you are not, not to detail your entire day for all to see! That would be creepy and I don't know anyone who does that.

If you want time for personal work every day, just block out those hours you plan to use for personal work as unavailable for scheduled events/meetings. You can still tell your grad students they can drop in whenever you're in the office. This just tells people they can't expect you to rush off meet whenever you aren't explicitly scheduled for another meeting.

Also your student was super creepy - sounds like he had some emotional/mental issues.

Unknown said...

Holy crap FSP. Just two years ago I got threatened with legal action by my undergraduate university's Dean of Students for harassing an employee for sending an email to a large group of students saying I hated my undergrad advisor.

Something like you describe sounds like it needs a restraining order. I can't believe you kept him as a student at all.

Candid Engineer said...

LOL, you have dealt with some seriously weird stuff in your career.

I wouldn't want anyone knowing my schedule. Get away from my calendar! It's private! It's like a diary! ... let alone my suitcase. I would have serious issues with male students looking at my underwear.

Bagelsan said...

I really appreciate it when people make it vaguely known when they're available. Between the not-often-updated shared lab calendar, my labmates and myself someone always knows the general location of our PI/adviser. (But not the contents of her suitcase. Clearly we're slacking. :p) And she wanders through the lab once a day if possible, so at least you know she'll be findable at some point during the day. I think it's a good compromise between constant public scheduling and behaving like an electron. :D