Thursday, October 24, 2013

Medieval Mind

Not long ago, I sat next to Distinguished BioMedSciProf at a luncheon meeting. We introduced ourselves (name, department, institution) and said a few slightly-more-detailed things about our areas of research expertise. I therefore knew what part of the human body/system he studied and he knew what aspect of the physical sciences I studied. We talked for quite a while, but I will mention three particular things that affected my conversational experience:

1. After explaining some basic aspects of my research, he asked, "Why hasn't all that been figured out already?" Several times in our conversation, he said things like, "Don't we already know all the important things about that?"

What does one even say to something like that? We non-bio scientists are just a bit slow? So how's it going CURING CANCER? What? You haven't done that yet?

2. Talking to him was like lopsided jousting, or like taking my oral prelims again. He fired questions at me and expected a certain answer. If he was not convinced by my response (despite having no expertise with which to judge my answers), he expressed his dissatisfaction ("That is hard to believe" etc.) and fired more questions. It was conversational torture (alert: hyperbole).

I was overall fine with this although I did not enjoy it as a conversational style. Is this one of those stereotypical male/female things in which men enjoy conversation-as-combat and women feel attacked? I didn't exactly feel attacked -- that's too strong a word -- although it was a bit exhausting. He mostly asked me questions about what he perceived I work on rather than what I really work on, but we made little progress in getting to a discussion of what I really work on. This could be because I was not a good explainer or because he was not interested in what I really work on. Either way, I think it is safe to say that he was not a good listener.

3. He said he thought he had met me before. I said I did not think we had ever met. It did not take much more exploration of this conversational thread to realize that he was confusing me with another female science professor in the physical sciences, at another university.

"No man can tell two of them apart, you see, and one name's as good as another.." The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

Well, the quotation wasn't meant to apply to women, but from my perspective, I have very little in common with the other FSP. We are not similar in geographical location, appearance, personality, age, or research expertise (from a physical sciences perspective, anyway, but perhaps we are the same from a biosciences perspective). I know it doesn't really mean anything that he thought I was this other FSP*, but it was yet another strange little aspect of our "conversation".

* For example, in the class I am teaching now, there are 4 particular students who seem so similar that it took me 3 weeks to know them well enough to be able to distinguish them correctly and easily. I am sure it would shock them that I see such similarities; they very likely do not see any such similarities (even if they have the same hair/clothes and they have similar or identical -- in the case of two of them -- names).

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Dealing with Disrespect

A reader wrote with a quandry about teaching students who are openly disrespectful. I have modified the e-mail message to remove some possibly-identifying details.
Some background: I'm a recent PhD graduate in my late 20s, working as a postdoc in a science field. The postdoc includes teaching one class a year, and I get to initiate and design the class based on my research area, which is really great. 

I've already taught this class once and it went over well. The class at that time didn't count for the major, so it was small and everyone who was taking the class was genuinely interested in the subject. I built a rapport with the students, and ended up with great evaluations that way exceeded my expectations.

This time, the class counts for the major, and my enrollment has increased to over 40. This is good, but now I have a variety of students, at least some of whom are only taking the class to complete their major.

While the students are actually better prepared on average than last year's class, they're extremely demanding -- not just about getting help understanding, which I appreciate and am happy to oblige -- but on details of how I run the class: they want me to make detailed powerpoint slides for every lecture, write practice tests, provide test outputs for their programming homework, and so on. I'm already stretched extremely thin, and besides, I don't want to spoon-feed them! My lectures are actually clearer than when I gave them last year -- and there were no complaints then -- so I don't think my teaching style should be causing problems. They also object to how I demand some degree of class participation and cold-call people for answers. 

The biggest problem I have, though, which is the real reason I'm writing to you, is that I unlike last year, I don't feel I have the respect of the majority of the students -- specifically, many of the male students. I lucked out with a niche set of students last year, but I get the sense now that many of the students have a preconception about my intelligence and ability. For example, today, I made a minor error running through the details of an algorithm. I clarified it quickly and the rest of the class went fine, but several people snickered or rolled their eyes when this happened and continued well after we were back on track. Obviously, errors and confusion in lectures are frustrating for the students, but I'm concerned they're expressing it by snickering so openly. There have been other instances -- for example, students being quick to assume I've made a mistake in writing out a formula, when it's really them misreading it.

Do you have any suggestions on gaining their respect while not being authoritarian (which I anticipate will also cause problems due to my gender)? I am very confident in my knowledge of the material, and fairly confident with leading a classroom, and these reactions are disturbing.
This reminded me of some experiences I had in my early years of teaching. I admit that I never dealt with this sort of situation in any active way. I did try to convey the impression that I was aware of the disrespect (not clueless about it) and was unimpressed by it, and I always hoped that by being calm and teaching the class the best way I knew how, the jerks would get a little bored. Sometimes this mostly worked. 
I think being relentlessly calm (without losing your sense of humor or passion for the subject you are teaching) is very different from being authoritarian. You can be authoritative without being authoritarian.

The only thing that really worked for me was to get significantly older than the students. That is not very satisfying as advice though.

Does anyone have any better advice? Have any of you dealt with this type of situation and found a way to silence the snickerers? Does being authoritarian work (assuming you can pull it off effectively)?


Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Academic Life is Good

Agree or disagree? (see below)

I happen to agree. Not to minimize anyone's stress in their academic job or to discount the anxieties that come with the pressure to get grants, publish papers, advise students, teach teach teach, travel, answer endless surveys from administrators who want to know about our quality of life but whose response seems to be to make life more difficult, and so on, BUT a reader writes:

.. from talking to male and female colleagues with kids, and having my daughter recently myself I find the idea that Academia is (more than other careers) hostile to family life to be hugely overblown. 
How many other jobs can you basically decide to set your schedule to be whatever hours you want, or even to work from home much of the time (I know several faculty members who have done this when they had young children and remain successful)? 

What other job lets you take 3 months in the summer to work on your own with few other obligations (some faculty I know work from home 4/5 days during the week in the summer)?  

What other career gives you 6 months to work from home or even another state if you want to, with no other work obligations, every 5-7 years (I know faculty who have taken a sabbatical basically to raise their infants)? 

And all of this while you are doing work you love that is intellectually stimulating, allows a standard of living well above average (and job security to rival a government job - even better at present!), and is physically safe.  

I am sick and tired of the privilege I see coming from academics.  Some people have to actually work for a living.  They work their bodies to death, and their minds to jelly because they have to.  We are lucky.  So, Damn, Lucky.  

What we need to do now, is convince more women of this and stop scaring people away with this idea that Academic science is some kind of hell that will destroy your life, your soul, and your family and any sane person would stay away...  I think maybe some people have selective memories...  It certainly doesn't seem to match with what you've described of your home life, or really that of any academic I've met. 

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

She Would Not Wish This On Her Nieces

From e-mail from a reader (text modified to remove possibly-identifying details):

I had traveled to a conference with some colleagues, including my husband. 

The first person who greeted us was a conference organizer. We introduced ourselves by our full names. It was a small conference and we assumed that, as an organizer, he would have looked at the list of attendees. I was greeted with a broad smile and "Oh, so you're just along for the 'ride'."

Over the next two days, my colleagues, husband, and I lost count of the number of intended and unintended gender-targeted put downs and innuendos.

My career in [this field] spans 25 years and I am often asked to become involved with groups encouraging young women in Science and Engineering. As I would not wish this environment for my own nieces, I am unable to promote STEM as a good choice for females.

Over the years, as I have attended some of the same conferences as my scientist-husband, the assumption that he is attending the conference and that I am his guest ('along for the ride') has occurred a few times, but not recently. This e-mail was a sad reminder that this still occurs. How is it that some people -- and most specifically conference organizers -- have not yet gotten the memo about how The Wife might be a scientist or engineer or mathematician?

Here is a short version of the memo, for handy reference: Don't assume.