Thursday, September 26, 2013

Hawking, Dawkins, and me

It is not every day that Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, and I appear in the same essay in Nature (11 September 2013).

In fact, it was so thrilling that I did not even take exception to the fact that the journal Nature thinks I am "free from the constraints of celebrity". So that's why they don't publish more of my papers -- they don't want me to get too constrained. Thank you, Nature!

Anyway, it is a bizarre essay, and I mean that in a nice-ish way, speaking as a self-selected unconstrained blogger-person who may or may not* write about her workaday reality, but who is at least talking to herself, or the Universe, but probably not to Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins. And I am OK with that.

Hawking's recent memoir doesn't fare too well in the review by Robert Crease in Nature.

It is a concise, gleaming portrait, not unlike those issued by the public relations department of an institution.

Hawking, or perhaps his soul, is compared to a black hole. Ouch.

Other reviewers are not so harsh: Hawking comes across as an understated, hard-working, and likable physicist committed to understanding and explaining the cosmos. [Boston Globe]

I am not a memoir-reading person, so I do not have a strong opinion about whether such works should be polished, soul-baring, and/or filled with previously unknown and juicy details** about the author. I suppose the point is, however, to give a reasonably accurate picture of at least a part of one's life, although the choice of what to include or omit is likely to annoy various readers no matter what.

That is an advantage of a blog (and perhaps that is the point of the essay in Nature). I don't have to summarize my life, such as it is, in a concise way with perfect balance between the mundane (the everyday life of a scientist and teacher), the awesome (my most favorite scientific discoveries or teaching moments), the absurd (see posts on "gender-directed weirdness"), and the cats (see posts labeled "cats"). Unfortunately, blogging can be a bit of a black hole, but then so are faculty meetings, effort reporting, and filing annual grant reports on

* phrase added to keep alive the rumor that this blog is written by cats
** My family had three identical cats named Fluffy by the time I was 9 years old; not a one of them was actually fluffy.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Irrelevant Dislikes

Although college is still quite a ways (years) away for my daughter, the onslaught of Collegiate Propaganda has begun. We get mail every day with colorful brochures. There are certain colleges that send something to her just about every week. She gets email. She gets invited to college fairs. It is non-stop college college college, probably from now until the applications are due in what still seems like the distant future.

As the child of two professors, my daughter has come to realize that her parents have Opinions about colleges and universities, and these Opinions are only somewhat-to-not useful in many (most) cases. 

Some of the college-mail that comes to our home is entertaining. One college postcard had a photo of a friend of ours on front. Some are bizarre in their slogans and/or images. This is interesting, but there is one thing that my husband and I have struggled with and will likely continue to struggle with for the foreseeable future: we must not let our opinions of the Science Department and Particular Scientists influence our daughter, who does not want to be a Scientist.

I do not always win this struggle with myself. Not long ago, my daughter saw me throwing a college brochure into the recycle bin before she had a chance to look at the brochure. She asked me why I was throwing it out. I did not have a good answer other than that I don't like one of the Science Professors at that institution. Not long ago, I was the recipient of some inappropriate touching by that person (hugging, arm-touching, deliberate bumping up against me) at a conference; I think he is a creep. There are creeps everywhere and I don't seriously think I am saving my daughter from encountering creeps by tossing out a brochure from that creep's institution, but still...I did not want that brochure sitting on my kitchen counter.

I have actually disposed of a few other brochures for institutions associated with disliked individuals in my field. Some of these incidents are not very recent. Here is an excerpt from a post in 2006 about something that happened in my academic youth:
At one interview, I gave my interviewers an updated copy of my CV, noting that the version they had was out of date because I had submitted some papers and a paper formerly in review was now in press. One of the interviewers took my new CV, slammed it on the table right in front of me, said "If you care about things like that then you CLEARLY do NOT have what it takes to teach at a place like this", and walked out of the room. I did not get that job.
I threw out the colorful postcard that came in the mail from that place. The mean interviewer is still there.

An institution that was the source of two very-high-maintenance associates? Recycle bin.

I think one of the reasons I do this is because I don't really think it matters. My daughter gets e-mail from all of these institutions, she gets multiple items in the mail from many of them (and I don't get to them all first..), and she has a mind of her own. She seems moderately entertained by her parents' Science anecdotes (some of them are even about people we like), and not at all worried that we will ruin her life with our foibles or deprive her of her dream school because we don't like a certain Science Professor she will probably never encounter. She is enjoying (so far) exploring ideas about types of institutions, fields of study, geographical locations etc., and I hope she keeps enjoying this.

I just can't promise I won't recycle the thing that comes in the mail from the university of that Scientist who wrote that mean review of one of my papers three years ago.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Room With A Table

To state the obvious: not all classrooms are created equal. Students may have strong feelings about their classrooms (types and arrangement chairs, writing surfaces, boards, screens; sight lines, acoustics, lighting etc.), and professors do as well. And although there are certainly rooms that are better than others, what works well for one class might not work well for another so any one classroom might be good or not good depending on the class/professor.

Several times in my teaching career, I have requested and been initially assigned a "good" classroom (one that works well for the class I am going to teach), only to be reassigned at the last minute to a "not good" classroom. To the casual observer, the differences in these rooms may be quite subtle, so I may seem like an unreasonable complainer when I object, but a room with chairs in rows is very different from a room with chairs around a table. A room that is a 12-second walk from my office is very different from a room that is a 12-minute walk from my office. A room with projection equipment is very different from a room with no projection equipment, and a room with a giant touch-screen TV is very different from a room without.. and so on.

You may have guessed that a classroom reassignment happened to me recently, and your guess would be correct. Another annoying thing about this late reassignment is that I had spent some time over the summer specifically preparing teaching activities for the room to which I had been originally assigned. Much of this time was wasted because my actual classroom does not (and cannot) have the same features as the original room.

A classroom re/assignment is not a neutral thing; just because a certain room will fit the number of students enrolled in the class does not mean that the class will "fit" in that room.

But I don't want to be (too) cranky so early in the new academic year. I am disgruntled about this particular issue but overall quite excited about teaching one of my favorite courses.