A Lifelong $hit-Eater Develops Intolerance to $hit

An interesting thing about middle age, or at least my middle age, is that, after a lifetime of holding my tongue and playing nice and putting up with $hit for the sake of peace and doing (or at least trying to do) what’s societally expected of women, some thresholds have been crossed and now my body reacts quite violently to additional incidents. A lifetime of swallowing small amounts of $hit is not unlike swallowing lead or absorbing radiation in that the effect is cumulative: I now have $hit poisoning and am entirely unable to tolerate added exposure to $hit. So when you fling what may be a really small amount of $hit at me (or another middle-aged woman), and I turn into a $hit dragon and bite your head off (and then all the $hit comes flying out of your neck because you’re in fact full of it) you have all the $hit-flingers who came before you to thank for that.

Seriously, so many men. (Not all men, sure, and yes some women, too, but very, very, very few women.) Mostly men. Listen, FFS. You do not know everything. People around you are not morons. They know things and want to be heard and respected for their expertise. You know, just like you. Listen, and do it respectfully and attentively, like others listen to you, and not how you do it, which is a) by talking all over them until they stop even though it’s their turn and you had yours but voila now and forever it’s your turn again or b) by jumping in at the first opportunity a speaker has to take a breath and taking over again or c) either a or b but with the added “No. This instead” regardless of the actual value or veracity of what was previously said.  Listen the way everyone listens to you even when you’re talking out of your ass.

Several unrelated incidents all speak of the same fuckin’ annoying mansplainy bullshit, of people’s pigheadedness and unwillingness to be corrected or adapt even in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are wrong, speak of some people’s rejection that they could ever be wrong.

First of all, I am about to leave a potential collaboration because I will not work with a certain colleague. He is fine, even amusing, in small doses, but I’ve always suspected we shouldn’t work together if we are to remain friendly. Talking all over me in a brainstorming session yesterday re-confirmed it. The fact I’ve got over 15 years on him doesn’t mean that I could possibly know anything he doesn’t. So I am pulling out of that. And no, I will not be discussing why, because all that does is labels me as difficult one. It’s so easy to be labeled difficult when you’re a woman; that’s like the original fuckin’ sin.

Second, let me start with an example. I read and write a lot and I like to know precisely what words and phrases mean, and if I’m pronouncing them correctly, so I look things up all the time. Even so, some errors sneak through. For example, a few days ago I realized that a word I’d been sure was detrius was actually detritus — for some reason, I’d never noted the second t. I’d also never heard it pronounced because it’s not exactly a colloquial word, so I made sure to look up the correct pronunciation. Overall, a face-palm moment, but hardly an ego-shattering one: I identified a misconception and then corrected it.

In contrast, I recently had a whole ordeal with a student (a native speaker of English) about the word homogeneous. That’s a word we often use in technical communication to characterize samples, applied fields, etc. Anyway, he said it probably three times in rapid succession during a single meeting and he kept mispronouncing it — it’s a common mispronunciation of this word, making it sound as if were spelled homogenous. I stopped him and told him about it and he just wouldn’t believe me. We went to the online dictionary and heard the pronunciation (I was right). He then asked how you pronounce inhomogeneous and homogeneity and I told him. We looked those up too, and I was right again. To which he asked who says the online dictionary was to be trusted; I said we did, because we all agreed to make it the go-to resource. I then went to Merriam-Webster online and obviously the information was the same. Finally, he said he didn’t care and that he would continue to pronounce it like homogenous because that’s what he’s used to.

This level of obstinacy is baffling. Instead of saying “Oh, I’ve been saying it wrong,” making a mental note to correct himself and moving on, he will go on being wrong just to prove that he’s…not wrong? That he’s infallible? I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’ve ever met a girl or a woman behaving this way (although considering the anti-vaxxers exist, there are probably many).

Third, on another blog I said something, let’s call it “this,” to which a commenter jumped in to say “It’s not this; it’s that.” I read that comment and immediately felt pressure rising in my neck. “This” was my opinion. “That” is the other commenter’s opinion. I don’t even think he’s wrong, but a) the two opinions are not mutually exclusive and b) it’s annoying as all hell to have one’s opinion dismissed as wrong (“It’s not this”) with another opinion delivered as fact (“…it’s that”). Framing one’s opinion as though it’s a fact that anyone with brain function would accept as true is an excellent way for people to think you’re an asshole and to stop talking to you.

If you want to converse as a human being, you could do worse than follow the guidelines on how to give constructive criticism, which were nicely articulated by the critiquing group Critters.

https://www.critique.org/c/diplomacy.ht

https://www.critique.org/c/whathow.ht

I share the above links often because they emphasize that, if you want to be heard, delivery is very important because no one likes being talked down to, even if they are wrong. (People who say they’re brutally honest usually enjoy leaning into the brutal part a little too much. Fuck those people.)

The problem is that I can’t really pretend all is peachy anymore. I get a tightness of chest, racing heart, and a pressure in my head and neck when people piss me off. I bet my blood pressure goes through the roof. The body is telling me to avoid certain people and situations and I have to listen because fuck people’s callousness and egomania. I have to do my work, but I can’t and won’t eat any more $hit if I can avoid it.

Grant Gnash

I often write here about burnout and, whether that comes across or not, I admit that I usually feel it’s my own fault the fires of technical creation do not perennially warm my heart.

But this week I realized — belatedly, surprisingly — that it’s probably not all my fault. There are serious structural obstacles to faculty work at research institutions.

Over the years, the way the university handles research funding has been getting more and more unpleasant. We have a designated department-level person, then a hub of college-level admins with one specific liaison per department, and then there’s a sponsored programs office that works with the whole campus. I love most of our department staff; however, following the addition of a new department-level grants person, now every single grants person I interact with is an unremitting bureaucrat. The number of rules we need to follow (most of them internal, mind you) is proliferating, the paperwork mounting, the internal deadlines unneeded and ridiculous, and we as PIs now have all the responsibility for all levels of operation (all purchasing, every single penny, approval of everyone’s travel) without any of the help from the admins, only more rules, oversight, constraints tightening from all sides, and all pleas for flexibility are met with formal emails forwarding even more formal memos in which yet another instance of procedural ossification has been approved by some official body, somewhere.

I feel that the admins whose role is to help us get grants not only don’t care, but actively hate us faculty and do not in the least mind doing things that make our jobs harder. There is no interest in helping or supporting us. There is only the bureaucracy’s interest in easing its own life and dumping as much work and as much responsibility as possible elsewhere.

Things have slowly been getting worse over my time as faculty, but I’ve always thought it was just me getting worn down by age, face time, and other forces unknown. Now that I am on sabbatical and the stress associated with teaching large classes is lifted, I clearly see that my mood and motivation are generally fine, but that all interactions with the grants-processing staff send me into job-related despair. I feel like I work among people whom I cannot circumvent, but who obstruct my work to the point of near sabotage.

It’s not all me. A lot of it is the fuckin’ system.

Sabbathing

I am on sabbatical this year and it is glorious. I have time to exercise every day, so I’m walking, running, and back to my biggest love — kickboxing! I’m feeling human again, and not just human, but like a grounded, rarely salty, and — dare I say? — moderately energetic human.

I’m not teaching or doing university service, but all the research is still here, as is all the other professional service, being that I’m now apparently a scientific elder states(wo)man (associate editorship of journals; reviews of papers — how am I the tie-breaker referee all the time these days?; reviews of so, soooo many proposals; membership on boards overseeing all sorts of scientific activities).

I was really busy last year, with teaching overload and really labor-intensive department service, but I think I’d gotten reasonably well rested by the end of the summer, and I am really, really grateful that I don’t have to jump back into teaching again.  Instead, this year will (at least in theory) be the year of getting the backlog of publications out to journals and bringing my largely newbie grad students up to speed. Also submitting more grant applications.

This doesn’t sound particularly restful or rejuvenating, does it?

I should be using the sabbatical to do even more science, newer and more exciting science, but it’s hard to be all gung-ho about it when a lot of energy keeps being spent on maintaining continuous funding and getting papers out while training students, all of which are in line with incremental work and orthogonal to making big, rejuvenating leaps.

Anyway, I do have some trips planned in the spring, and some talks scheduled with new communities, where I will hopefully hear some interesting talks and get some cool ideas. Other than that, I think I want to simply spend more time on my creative writing, which has been going well, thanks for asking. 🙂 I am contemplating between, on the one hand, writing a novel — which everyone says I should do, and this free time is a unique opportunity I will not have again for the next 7 years, but I’m feeling meh about it, and even though there are 3-4 stories I wrote that were really well received and could kick off a novel, I don’t crave to spend 80-100k words with any of those characters — and, on the other hand, simply writing more short fiction, poetry (yes, there’s poetry now, too, and not all of it is garbage, at least I don’t think it is), and — newsflash! — screenplays. The latter is what I’ve been gravitating toward, even though, as an endeavor with any kind of payoff, it’s probably far more futile than writing a novel.

How’s your September, academic blogosphere? 

This and That

  • I had an invited talk at a conference I don’t usually attend and there I met one of my former grad students, who’s now happily employed in industry. He said how one of his younger friends from his postdoc group had tried to talk to me at an earlier conference this summer, but couldn’t get to me because I was ‘too popular.’ I almost choked on my fourth coffee. I am so not a superstar; it’s hilarious that someone would see me as perpetually besieged and thus unapproachable. Although I suppose one can be a big fish if the pond is small enough. Or something.
  • You know how most people feel science is boring? I don’t know what happened to me, maybe it’s the effect of reading and writing too much fiction, but I find myself very easily annoyed and almost impossible to amuse by scientific papers. Have papers always been this goddamn awful? Or have I been exposed to an unusually bad batch of poorly written and creatively infinitesimal technical prose?
  • Maybe this is the real reason why only some hobbies are acceptable for academics in STEM fields? When you start writing fiction, technical writing becomes unbearable? The slow and painful and decidedly non-flashy nature of scientific research looks dull and drab, and, once you see it, you cannot un-see it?

Anyhow, a bit more on the acceptability of hobbies for STEMcademics. Anything physical is obviously OK, lauded even (e.g., running, rock climbing, whitewater rafting), as are music and painting, although I don’t know many practicing painters or musicians among scientists, even though I hear math and music often go together, so often that my tin ear must mean that I am deluded about my ability to do advanced math. But yes, there are a lot of runners and gym rats among STEM folks. Artisanal baking or cooking are OK, too.

Some other hobbies appear to be shameful. Nobody ever confesses to gaming or to watching movies or TV shows. A number of my colleagues lament how they wish they had more time for movies or TV, thereby simultaneously boasting how virtuously busy they are (protestant work ethic?) and signaling how lowly of a pastime they consider video entertainment to be. Then there are the hobbies that involve parts of the brain that should be used in cranking out papers, such as blogging or writing. One should never admit to engaging in these hobbies, lest one wants to be told they have too much time on their hands and should spend it writing papers instead.

I wonder how people would react to saying you don’t just occasionally play an instrument, you compose music and/or are seriously involved with a band or an orchestra. Or that you don’t just cook for your family, you’re actually a part-time chef at a restaurant and/or have written cookbooks. Or that you aren’t just a gamer, that you develop and sell games (unless you’re in CS and specialize in computer graphics or animation). Or that you’re a lifestyle or makeup vlogger. Or that you paint or sculpt so avidly that you’ve exhibited your art and/or made some serious coin off the hobby.

While running marathons seems to be universally lauded, because physical exercise is considered a good destressor and generally beneficial to your performance on the job, it seems to me that being too serious about nearly any other pursuit might raise eyebrows of colleagues; they think it siphons creativity from where it is supposed to lie: your job. As if creativity is a well you can only deplete, as if it’s not replenished (at least for some of us) by a large variety of creative pursuits.

This attitude has even been coded in the university effort reporting protocols. You don’t report the fraction of a 40-hour workweek you spend on a project; you report a percentage of your overall expended effort; presumably, when it comes to work hours, sky is the limit. There is an underlying assumption that all your effort goes into your job.

Remember Ken Cosgrove on Mad Men, who wrote science fiction? His boss Roger Sterling told him to knock it off, because the advertising job (where a client shot Cosgrove in the eye) provided everything a man could possibly need. If I remember correctly, the following night, Cosgrove wrote a sci-fi story about a robot who could only turn one knob on or off.

Not sure where I’m going with this.

Sometimes I get really grumpy about how little of myself I can show to the world, and how little the people with whom I interact get to know me and I them. It’s probably for the best, I know, for people usually consider me to be too much along every imaginable axis, but this making of myself small and palatable and partitioning of the self into bite-sized pieces is exhausting, saddening, enraging. I had a 15-min meeting with our (newish) department chair which took me two months to schedule, yet I could tell that she couldn’t wait for me to leave. She’s always been friendly and polite, but I’ve always had the feeling that whatever time we’re scheduled to spend together is too long.

So few of us really know each other. It would be nice to be known by someone other than kids and husband. But, if to be known is to always to be considered too much, then perhaps maybe not.

One could say that your colleagues are not your friends and I suppose that’s fine. But we spend decades working alongside one another, it’s almost a shame not to develop something resembling friendships, kind of like with neighbors — life thrusts you together, why not make the best of it? But most colleagues are focused on their work and family and don’t want to broach anything non-work related and don’t seem to (although, how would I even know?) have much going on outside family and work, except maybe church. Outside work, I’ve made some near-friendships in town, parents of my kids’ friends and folks in my sci-fi book club. It’s all great, but again, my foreignness (everyone else is local) and my general intensity freak everyone out. So I tone myself down, enforce quiet and passivity, and focus on absorbing. I think many people want to be heard, but don’t necessarily hear others. They want an audience, but never listen. Wanting people to consider you as a real multifaceted person, as someone who’s not just a minor character in their narrative, appears to always be an imposition.