Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy Birthday Merry Christmas

No, this is not another reflection on the perils and pleasures of having a birthday at this time of year; at least, not exactly. The topic did, however, come up recently in an unusual setting and somehow this led to another topic that is a rather common theme around here at the FSP blog, and I was kind of fascinated by that.

Below you will find a transcript (heavily edited for brevity, but faithfully recording the content) of a conversation I recently had as part of being "interviewed" by an official person at an airport re. the Security of the Homeland. I hope it doesn't shock anyone, but you will see below that I admit to lying (once) to this official person in this interview.

Man In Uniform (MIU): Your birthday is very close to the end of the year. That must have made your father happy, for tax purposes.

FSP: Yes. (That was my one lie: In fact, it was my mother who was happy about this; she handled all the family finances, did the taxes, and had labor induced a few days early, for tax purposes. I doubt if my father knew or cared about any of this, but I didn't see a reason to correct the MIU's assumption about my parents.)

MIU: Have we met before?

FSP: Not to my knowledge.

MIU: I think we might have met. A few weeks ago I met another female professor from your university. She works on [name of a research topic that a non-scientist might think is similar to what I do even though it's not].

FSP: No, that wasn't me. I work on X, and that's different from what that other professor works on.

MIU: Are you sure? Two lady professors from the same university, both scientists?

FSP (calmly): That wasn't me. There are more than two female science professors at my university.

MIU: I used to jump out of airplanes.


MIU: Have you ever changed your name?

FSP: No.

MIU: [long anecdote about a woman in his family who recently changed her name]. Have you ever plotted to overthrow the US government?

FSP: No.

The rest was kind of boring. Why had I traveled to Countries X, Y, and Z? What did I bring back? Who paid for my business travel? etc.

That's my Christmastime-birthday-gender-directed-weirdness anecdote. Happy Birthday Merry Christmas, and don't forget to send in your fake CV for the Academic Writing Contest of 2012.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Annual End-of-Year Academic Writing Contest: 2012

For me, this winter break would not be festive without an End-of-Year Attempt-At-Humor Academic Writing Contest Of Some Sort. Oh sure, I can get in the holiday mood by walking into any store, cafe, or gas station and being subjected to a bewildering variety of renditions of the most appalling Christmas songs possible, I can (try to) put reindeer antlers on my most docile cat, and I can even decorate cookies in vile colors (Fig. 1),

but it just wouldn't be the same without an End-of-Year Attempt-At-Humor Academic Writing Contest of Some Sort.

To recap the last 4 contests:

What now? Announcing: the CV (curriculum vitae/resume).

I know what you are (possibly) thinking: the CV? That is not writing.

And so I reply, if you are (possibly) thinking that: au contraire. I have learned in the past few months that even the smallest, shortest, fragmentary attempt to convey information in a visual way is "writing". I learned this in some "meetings".

But that's not why I have selected the CV as this year's writing theme. I selected the CV because I have been continually amazed over the years by the fact that it is possible to go so far astray with what is seemingly a simple document in which some biographical and other facts are arranged to describe a person's qualifications for a position. Even more amazing to me is the realization that it is possible for someone to create (what seems to me to be) an obnoxious CV; not in the nature of the facts but in how they are presented.

Readers who wish to participate: Your challenge is to create an entirely fictitious or at least heavily disguised CV that fulfills one or more of the following outcomes,
  • entertainment;
  • horror;
  • mentoring;
  • all of the above.
whilst not veering (too far) from the norms of the academic CV. In addition, it would be great if the fabricated CV is not too long.

I hasten to emphasize that submitted CVs should not humiliate any actual persons other than yourself. The purpose of this contest is to have fun, relieve end-of-term stress, and perhaps make a dramatic and useful point or three about potential CV pitfalls.

As always, parody -- subtle or savage -- is encouraged, although I realize (from e-mails I have received over the years) that these writing contests may generate some anxiety in those who are in the process of creating the very document that is being featured. I have therefore added "mentoring" as a possible outcome, even if the mentoring is done in an ungentle way.

Entries can be sent to (do not send attachments) and will be reviewed by the FSP Editorial Board. I will be traveling in an unusual place throughout most of late December - early January, but I will post selected entries as internet access permits.

Entries will be accepted until the position is filled. Review of entries will begin on or soon after I start receiving them in the next week or two. Eventually there may be a vote on the Most Entertaining, Most Horrifying, and/or Most Useful Fake CV.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Mentor Bully

Not long ago, I attended a workshop that included a presentation on mentoring. The presentation was given by someone who had a lot of experience with mentoring students, postdocs, and other faculty, in training faculty to be mentors, and in training faculty to train other faculty to be mentors (etc.). You get the picture: this person was immersed in the theory and practice of mentoring and had been asked to share their experience with 'best practices' and advice about mentoring.

In particular, I was curious to learn whether and how peer institutions organize mentoring systems for assistant professors, and to share ideas with colleagues about postdoc mentoring plans (such as we submit with NSF proposals that include requests for postdoc salary). In fact, I got a lot out of talking to the other workshop participants about mentoring issues, even though we were not the "experts" on mentoring. It turns out many of us had similar questions and concerns.

What did we get from the "mentoring expert"? We got abrupt and patronizing comments, including responses like "no kidding", "that's obvious", and "that's wrong" (with no explanation for why it was wrong, just that it was not what the Mentor Expert does).

I wondered: perhaps this is yet another cautionary tale about what can happen when you become too expert in a topic, even a supposedly warm-and-fuzzy topic like mentoring. And this is what can happen when you try to convey your knowledge and experience in a text-laden Powerpoint presentation, and are not happy when questions and comments from the audience attempt to make you veer from your prepared (bullet) points.

Memo to me: try not to be like that if at all possible

Did I learn anything new about mentoring at this workshop? Not exactly, but it was still good to see what the range of possibilities are, for example, for mentoring systems for assistant professors:
  • Should mentors be assigned or should they volunteer? There were surprisingly strong feelings about this.
  • How many should each person have (1? 2? the entire department? different mentors for research and teaching?) 
  • Should mentor and mentee meet a certain minimum number of times per term or per year or just leave it open and hope that conversations happen naturally? 
  • What are the most essential roles of mentors? To answer questions or to be proactive about asking questions and giving advice? To read grant proposals and manuscripts before they are submitted?
  • Should anything 'extra' be done for members of underrepresented groups, or would that be 'singling them out' in an unfair and possibly humiliating way?
If I had to guess in an unscientific way, I would say that most of the participants I talked to and whose departments have some sort of mentoring system would answer:

assigned, 1, once/term, all of the above, no on doing 'extra' mentoring for underrepresented groups

... and the mentoring expert would answer:

volunteer, entire department, conversations should happen naturally, whatever everyone has time for, yes on doing 'extra' mentoring for underrepresented groups