Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Now Stand in the Place Where You Work

When I used to blog 5 days/week, it was easy to come up with topics. No topic was too trivial, it seemed. Since I haven't been blogging every weekday, suddenly each potential post comes with extra baggage: is this topic important enough for a rare post? I ask myself. How can I write about mundane issues when I haven't even commented on the fact that some female Olympic athletes from certain countries (Japan, Australia) flew to London in coach class while the male athletes were in business class? Also, there has recently been an amazing outpouring of letters on behalf of FSP-as-mentor (thank you everyone for this); shouldn't I write something mentor-y? etc.

Maybe I should, but today I am not. Because it's summer? My blog muscles are flaccid? All this is to warn you that the infrequency of my blogging does not correlate with the importance of my blog-topics when a rare post appears.

What I was obsessing about recently (and not for the first time) is how we arrange our faculty offices so that people (students, colleagues) can visit us and have an obvious and convenient place to sit. I think about this particular topic:

- when I visit some other faculty offices*; and
- when people visit my office;

(* but not in my own department!; my colleagues mostly have the visitor-chair situation figured out very well. I cannot, however, say that I have this figured out for my own office.)

Despite the fact that many of us have visitors in our offices multiple times every day, it is amazing to me how many times I go to someone else's faculty office for an extended chat and it is not clear where I should sit. In some cases, there is no available chair, or no chair in an obvious place for conversing with the person whose office it is, and so on. Oh sure, there may be one or many chairs scattered about the office, but some or none of them seem safe/convenient/possible for sitting and conversing. It doesn't matter what type of institution it is -- giant university, small college: many of us are furniture-challenged when it comes to receiving visitors in our academic offices.

This is amazing to me, but in a hypocritical kind of way, as my office seems to confuse many people who stop by to chat. They seem perplexed: should they sit in the more comfortable place further from my desk or the less comfortable place closer to my desk? I contribute to the confusion when I occupy the more comfortable seating option rather than sitting at my desk (I do this because I no longer have a desktop computer so why not sit wherever I want? And also I find that sitting in a comfy seat rather than in my desk chair reduces this effect.) Many people choose to stand.

As it turns out, I actually have two offices, and I recently started reorganizing one to be more visitor-friendly. I don't really want to talk to people across a big wooden desk (well, sometimes I do, but most of the time I don't), and I don't want people to stand because they aren't sure where to sit. I also don't want to get up and walk across the room to sit in some other chairs every time someone stops by for a brief chat, etc.

So, how is your office arranged? (Fig. 1).  Do you talk to visitors across your desk? (That is, you are seated behind your desk, visitors are sitting or standing on the other side.) Or do your visitors typically sit in a chair at or near the end of your desk (or desk-like thing)? When you have visitors, do you move to a seating area away from your desk? Or something else?

Figure 1. Some possible office configurations.

And: Is your office arranged in a particular way for visitors because you have thought about how you want to interact with visitors, or because you don't really have a choice given size/furniture constraints?

And most important question: Do you have always/commonly/sometimes/never have to move piles of papers and other stuff off a chair so that a visitor can have a seat?

No, actually this is the most important question: Do you think it matters how your office is arranged with respect to where visitors sit? For example, does it affect how you interact with students and others? Can a well-arranged office make you a better mentor? Or not?

Monday, July 02, 2012

Apparently, There Is a Me in Mentor

Some very kind FSP readers contacted me about nominating me for an AAAS Mentoring Award, and even contacted AAAS to see if they would consider a blogger, and an anonymous one at that. They apparently would, although they want a lot of irrelevant (in my case) information: a list of my real-life mentees etc. I didn't see the point of that and the process seemed like a lot of work for the nominators, so my first reaction was Thanks (very much, really), but no thanks.

But then, on a long flight, when I was experiencing some blog-writing withdrawal and/or the effects of dramamine, I thought "But wouldn't it be kind of interesting to do a test-case, to see how bloggers-as-mentors are perceived?"

I still wasn't sure, and I had to think about it for a while longer. How did writing posts and indirectly helping some people along the way compare to the in-the-trenches real-life mentoring of the face-to-face variety? With blog posts, readers can take them or leave them, use them or not, be interested or not, like me or hate me. There is great potential to be helpful, and little risk of doing harm (other than annoying some people). With a real-life mentor (which I use here as synonymous with advisor), there are many complicated issues involving personalities, money, time, success and failure, and so on. Blogging is easy; mentoring people in real life is much harder.

But I was still intrigued about the idea of comparing bloggers-as-mentors with traditional mentors. For example, how does quantity of mentees enter into the equation? Clearly it is easier to mentor (or at least attempt to entertain) large numbers of people via the blogosphere in just a few years than it is over the course of a career in real life; is that important or not? And are there things that blog-mentors do that real-life ones don't (or, more likely, don't tend to)?

This shouldn't just be about me. If you know of an academic blogger who has been very helpful, I strongly encourage you to consider nominating them for an AAAS Mentor Award. I think it would be excellent if there were a pile of blogger-nominations.

And if you are still reading, please see below for information that two FSP readers have put together for the particular case of possibly considering FSP-the blogger-as-mentor:

A mentor indeed

Every year the AAAS gives two Mentor Awards to "honor individuals who during their careers demonstrate extraordinary leadership to increase the participation of underrepresented groups in science and engineering fields and careers. These groups include: women of all racial or ethnic groups; African American, Native American, and Hispanic men; and people with disabilities.*"

Good mentoring is crucial to a successful academic career (and it is especially difficult for women to find mentors), and we think the impact of good mentoring should be more often recognized and rewarded. Based on our own experience, and the many comments on FSP's most recent post (and over the years), we feel that this blog, and FSP, have provided a valuable mentoring resource to hundreds of people, female and male, academics and not, who needed and used the mentoring advice herein.

So we are nominating FSP for a mentor award Mentor Award, and to do this we need your help.

This collective mentoring (comments from other readers are an integral part of it all) is obviously not what one would traditionally think of as mentoring. But the proof is in the pudding. For us, it worked. The challenge will be to convince the AAAS that this _is_ mentoring. If we succeed, we will have not only thanked FSP for the amazing thing she has done for us all, laboring over this blog five days a week for 6 whole years, but also perhaps encourage others to adopt this model as well and encourage institutions to view mentoring more broadly.

The AAAS's guidelines are perplexingly traditional. They want tables of students (US citizens or permanent residents) that were mentored and completed a doctoral degree. How bizarre -- no mention of postdocs... of junior faculty... Because these don't need mentors? Is it not that the leaky pipeline is most perforated at the higher rungs of the academic ladder? Given that our nomination is already untraditional, we would like to go beyond what the AAAS requests, and provide the _real_ proof for why FSP's mentoring is exceptional. We feel that the proof is the many many mentees, from countries across the globe, spanning different stages of scientific careers. Lets give them the real picture, not the "only US citizen" version of it.

Readers, as mentioned above, we need your help. YOU are the real picture that we are talking about. If you feel that you have gained career mentoring from FSP, please go to https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?formkey=dEk3c0lTMlJjZC1QOHJZSlpxNUdZakE6MQ#gid=0 and fill in your details, to be used as part of the nomination. Please make it easy for us by putting in as much information as you can, and submitting only one entry. Oh, and the clock is ticking. We have less than one month until the deadline, and we have no way of contacting you to nag about this later, so please fill in the form now. We did it and it took the whole of 1 minute.

Thank you,

Yael (yael@princeton.edu) & John (vidale@uw.edu)


* The rest of the description from the AAAS website is: "Both awards recognize an individual who has mentored and guided significant numbers of students from underrepresented groups to the completion of doctoral studies or who has impacted the climate of a department, college, or institution to significantly increase the diversity of students pursuing and completing doctoral studies. It is important to indicate in the nomination materials how the nominee’s work resulted in departmental and/or institutional change in terms of the granting of PhDs to underrepresented students. This can be documented not only with quantitative data, but may also be demonstrated through the student and colleague letters of support.

Such commitment and extraordinary effort may be demonstrated by:

        • the number and diversity of students mentored;
        • assisting students to present and publish their work, to find financial aid, and to provide career guidance;
        • providing psychological support, encouragement, and essential strategies for life in the scholarly community;
        • continued interest in the individual's professional advancement."