Intermezzo

I am just going to give myself 10 min to write this post, so whatever comes out, comes out.

I am in a time crunch over a proposal, which also means that every other facet of my life must demand much more from me than usual.

Over the last several days I spent 1-2 hours every day on a video call with a grad student in a progressively worsening mental-health situation. It ended with me calling (over the phone) the crisis line on the student’s behalf during one video call, only to realize that the crisis line is bullshit if a person feels absolutely terrible but aren’t actually in imminent danger of suicide. Basically, “Go to emergency room or make an appointment, otherwise have a good night.” Such unspeakable bullshit. Although it shouldn’t have been a surprise; in this country, anything that you don’t pay though the nose for is a joke.

Since the pandemic started, graduate students in my group have needed much more accommodation, understanding, flexibility.

Since the pandemic started, many more students in classes have needed much more accommodation, understanding, flexibility.

I am supposed to accommodate and understand everyone, be all to everyone. I am tired and angry, and it doesn’t seem fair. Do male faculty have to put up with all these incessant nontechnical demands on time and energy? I bet they don’t.

No one is going to renew my grant because they feel sorry for me. I can’t say, “Sorry our papers are slow to come out. Students have been depressed, and I also have kids at home who constantly interrupt, and I have no peace and quiet to work, and god forbid I have my own dips in motivation or energy or health, ’cause I am a mom and a PI and everyone around me requires endless support which I am supposed to provide out of my apparently bottomless reserves, but of course I would never need or want a break, so I understand that you can’t give me one because you need to teach me a lesson on how real scientists work.”

I’m so angry.

On Worthiness and Lack Thereof

Coming down from the adrenaline high of an in-person lecture, combined with finally having had something to eat, I am now semi-comatose and thus the evening work shift cannot yet begin. Hence, a blog post!

***

Regarding the fine art of not giving a f*ck and all that.

I wonder how life is for my very confident colleagues. It must be awesome to never second-guess whether or not they were supposed to speak, whether they were annoying, whether people looked at them askance, whether they looked/sounded stupid, whether people wanted them to leave or shut up.

Some days are better than others, but I usually have to work hard to detach the part of me that is constantly scanning facial expressions and small changes in tone, constantly taking in the feedback from all around, the feedback always being that I am at best boring and at worst a menace, stupid and unworthy and just taking up space that should go to someone better, someone less irritating and more worthy of just about everything.

Why are so many professional interactions so uncomfortable? So much hostility, so much grandstanding. Most of them I can only endure if I completely cut off a part of myself, the part that screams, “Run! Hide! Nobody wants you here!”

I know that the part of me isn’t always correct, that usually people don’t give enough of a shit about me one way or another to plot my demise.

That’s because the world, for the likes of me, is populated by people who don’t give a shit, which is a depressing option but actually a more relaxing one, because to know me is to be irritated by me. The few who do give a shit in a positive way are needles in a haystack.

How does it feel to be someone who thinks the world is their oyster, that everyone is out there to welcome and appreciate them?

I see my kids are like that, and I am both relieved that I haven’t ruined them and secretly terrified that they are deluded for thinking anyone (other than family) will give a shit about them. I know enough not to remove their rose-colored glasses (and keeping my doom and gloom away from them is sometimes really, really hard) but damn, wouldn’t it be nice to feel so positive toward the world and one’s place in it?

There has to be a level of obliviousness to one’s confidence, this ability to just have other people’s moods and vibes slide off you like water off a duck’s back, and not have each glance pierce your chest.

Today I participated in some online meetings, but didn’t have it in me to turn on my camera or say much. I felt particularly stupid, irritating, and just overall unwanted and irrelevant. Yet, if anything, I probably came across as disinterested and unprofessional.

It would be nice not to have days when I can’t help but speak my mind, only to always, ALWAYS, regret having talked. It would be nice not to always feel like too much, like such an imposition on everyone.

***

A few years ago, I wrote a post about travel in academia: why we do so much, if it’s necessary, how much I’ve grown to hate it, etc. Someone came to the comments to say that those who travel all the time and generally give their all to the job are the ones who deserve all the money and accolades and that, basically, you are either doing it 100% and it’s your life, or get out.

I think about that comment often. It’s such an American sentiment. You can only be one thing, and that thing must consume and define you, or else you are unworthy of even partaking, let alone winning.

On the one hand, that’s the prevailing narrative. On the other hand, it may be a steaming pile of garbage and simply a way to exhaust and thin out the competition.

Based on what I see it in fiction writing (now, 3.5 years in, having published both literary and speculative short fiction, and having sold enough of it at high-enough pay rates to qualify for membership in both HWA and SFWA), statements such as “success flows to the most devoted” and “only the most devoted deserve success” are simply untrue. I have seen newbies knock it out of the park with their first or second publication, and I’ve seen devoted veterans whose work never has and probably never will reach that level of quality. It sucks, but it’s true. There are people for whom writing is their entire life: they got their English degrees and/or their MFAs, they might work as English profs or editors, this is their calling, yet they may not be the best or the most prolific or the most original or the most anything; they struggle with writing and publishing like everyone else, and they keep going. Then you have the people who presumably shouldn’t even bother writing because it’s not their calling, but these people write and publish, are read and appreciated, and put out quality work into the community. Sometimes this work is of higher quality and gets into better markets than the work of those completely devoted. Is this fair? It doesn’t seem like it. Yet, that’s how it is.

It’s true that some literary magazines won’t really consider a writer seriously without an MFA or an English lit degree. But most aren’t like that. Most will read the work and judge it on its merit.

Should people like me, who have day jobs, not write at all? That means a priori removing potentially worthy, publishable work from the literary world just because the author is not devoted enough? And what’s devoted anyway? Even serious writers often don’t write full time; even serious writers have “day jobs.”

Not sure where I am going with this, other than screw anyone who measures someone’s worthiness by the amount of sweat and student debt, or the complete absence of interests and hobbies outside work. As Stephen King says, in On Writing: “Life is not a support system for art [or science]. It’s exactly the other way around.”

Valentine’s Links, You Saucy Minx

 

Reader Question: Disillusioned by Lack of Diversity

Dear xykademiqz,
I’m reaching out as I’m not sure where to turn and the anonymity of the blogosphere may be helpful here.
I’m an assistant professor who was trained in a field with pretty equal gender representation up until the postdoctoral level and studied in a pretty racially diverse city. I’ve moved to a field where diversity is dismal and the city is extremely segregated. My department has minimal gender and near non-existent racial diversity; further, age- and tenure-wise we lean extremely senior.
As a junior, non-homogenous hire, I’ve been thrown on the new diversity committee that was formed after the obligatory formation of said-committees throughout the US after the events of his past summer (on top of ~4 other committees). Since the formation, we haven’t done too much action, as there’s been ridiculous number of fires to put out. One event had to deal with comments of someone with tangential relation to the department sharing that not everyone is equally capable of performing STEM… and no action has been taken by the department for a while to address this. Students know about this. Staff. Faculty. And the response is crickets. People continue to collaborate with said someone. It might be “too political” to make a statement otherwise.
My question is two-fold: first, long-term, these are the people who will be voting on my tenure. How can I trust a fair judgement? Second, every time this committee meets I feel worse about the world and my colleagues. Should I quit the committee?
Yet, my friends say I should be “proud I’m changing the face of my field.” Students tell me that I’m the first professor that is like them. But really I’m tired. The face should already be changed. Academia feels so far behind and moves so slow. But is my department moving slower than others? Or is it this bad everywhere?
(Also, I should be writing a paper, grant, etc. instead I’m dealing with this. *sigh* The joys of my white, straight, male colleagues. Must be nice.)
TLDR – How do I just not throw in the towel in with all the sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. in STEM. I’m sick of being the token committee member and dealing with the BS.
– AsstProfLyfe
Academic blogosphere, what say you?

Scary Collabs

Seems like there’s never any time for a full post, but such is pandemic/academic (pandcademic? with a silent d?) life.

This year started well with respect to research papers; one out, one accepted, two likely to be accepted by the end of the month. This after a slow 2020 where my grad students (and, let’s face it, me, too) moved through molasses.

I am feeling really irritable. I wonder if it’s because I discontinued my murder-prevention walks a month or so ago when it became too cold outside (the treadmill aggravates my joints; you hit the floor the exact same way over and over, so the same muscles and tendons get used, in contrast to walking outside, where the slight imperfections in the terrain force the foot and leg to adjust). All I know is that I am even more irritated than before by people talking sloooooowly, or generally taking forever to utter perfectly predictable, boring opinions.

I have to admit, I love, love, LOVE not having to attend meetings in person. In-person meetings bring me a lot of stress. It goes something like this: Something is being discussed (usually slooooowly and boringly) and I either manage to prevent myself from speaking, which is optimal for everyone involved, or I fail to prevent myself from talking and end up feeling like an impatient, blathering fool and deeply regret having spoken. I always regret having spoken, even when — especially when! — someone comes to tell me they’re happy I spoke. So, these Zoom meetings are great because I can turn off my camera and just do my own thing while others talk, or even when I can’t, I can still check email and otherwise divert my attention so I don’t get in trouble.

It’s amazing how stressful speaking up is in academia. Not just among colleagues in the department, but in the professional community. I find all academic communities to be pretty unnerving and, after nearly two decades of getting stressed out, just plain exhausting. I manage to dissociate before I need to go give a talk, shove my feelings deep down, and put on my dog-and-pony show, but the whole being out in the world with other scientists is really much more unpleasant than it would have to be. And I’m what you’d generally call a socially well-adjusted individual with decent communication skills.

There’s a cool piece of work my group did in loose collaboration (more like consultancy) with an experimentalist. This collaborator is a pretty intimidating individual, so I don’t really like to interact with him more than necessary. He liked the paper and asked if I’d sent it to a third person, whom I find an order of magnitude more scary than the collaborator and thus actively avoid. (I don’t think the scary men miss having me around, as I am pretty sure they think I am stupid.) However, I have had collaborations in the past, with some great people, where I’ve actually felt comfortable and appreciated. A close collaborative relationship (this holds for advising, too) has to be such that the parties are comfortable brainstorming and saying stupid things and being wrong and playing off each other. I can’t work with people who are too invested in projecting the persona of a scary know-it-all, always the smartest person in any room. Maybe that’s why I will always be a Smalltown Grocer and never a Big Dog PI or whatever, but there’s something to be said for thinking in peace and being comfortable and sharing ideas without trepidation, because I am pretty sure I am not actually stupid.

Wow, I guess I did have things to say!

How’s it going, blogosphere? How are your relationships within collaborative endeavors?

Random Bits of Starting a New Semester

♦ Teaching in person this coming semester. Looking forward to interacting with students, feeling bad for them, and let’s face it, myself, too, in the light of incessant saliva-based testing that is now required in order to access any building. In the fall we didn’t have anyone get sick in class, all positive cases were traced back to dorms and frat houses, so while I support free and widely available testing, this seems like overkill and has been causing a lot of stress among students, faculty, and staff because many samples get rejected as discolored, containing bits of food or mucus, people not being able to provide enough saliva, etc. It’s a mess.

♦ There is a special kind of loneliness that comes from widespread long-term stress. Everyone’s reserves of good will, patience, hell, fucks to give, get depleted. People can barely hold themselves together and have nothing to spare for anyone else. If one ever needed an explanation for why so many people in the US were lonely even before the pandemic, this heightened stress should make it clear. You can’t connect when no one around you has anything left to give.

♦ I am facing a busy grant-writing period (well, busier than usual). Oof. But, I suppose this is a good, normal kind of oof.

♦ The university is vaccinating people on campus who are over 65. When you think of it, this is a somewhat nonsensical statement. Students are obviously not in this category, and 65 is retirement age; most staff will have retired by that point. There should be very few people in the over-65 bracket on campus. But  plenty of professors teach well into their 70s and 80s. I thought I’d be one of those people, that I would never retire. I don’t think that anymore.

♦ This is something I noticed even before the pandemic: Very few of my colleagues have anything to say about new books, or movies, or shows. Nobody reads or watches anything. There aren’t talks of museum exhibits or concerts, either. I would even welcome chatter on sports! The young ‘uns work nonstop; I do remember the insanity of tenure, so that’s warranted. But all midcareer colleagues work nonstops, too; it’s unclear why.  Maybe they’re still enjoying it more than anything else in the world? Maybe they’re still chasing something? What is this strange place where everyone (but me) seems compelled to work all the time? How did I get here, and why? Should I flee, and, if yes, where to?

♦ There is a special kind of loneliness that comes from being surrounded by people, some of whom are not supposed to know you, the rest of whom don’t give a shit to know you. At least, with the first kind, you can pretend that, given the chance, they wouldn’t be the second kind.

Linky-Doodle-Do

Elementary, My Dear Xykademiqz

I chatted with DH today about our childhoods. Mine often feels like another life, or like it happened to someone else. Perhaps that’s how everyone feels.

As I wrote here and there on the blog, I had primary school (equivalent of elementary plus middle, 8 years total), the placement into which was solely based on geography. Then high school (4 years), which, during my time, involved light specialization (for example, mine was natural sciences, but there was also a parallel social sciences and humanities track in the same school that my BFF attended; my husband went to another school where his specialization was math and programming). Then, in college, one enrolled in a major right away and was pretty much railroaded to graduation. There were several tracks to choose from as upperclassmen, but, again, no course cherry-picking; you pick a track and the course sequence is fixed.

Because of this specialization, since high school I was surrounded, more or less, with people who were similarly academically minded. Today I thought of some of the people I went to elementary school with.

There were two siblings born under a year apart in my class in elementary and high school. I look them up sometimes, and they have done well, have BS degrees in math and mechanical engineering and work in their fields.

I also remember the kids who used to sit with me in the back row in physics lab (yes, we started having physics in 6th grade; twice a week; chemistry in 7th grade, twice a week; not too much math initially, but I asked Dad to teach me some trigonometry in 6th or 7th grade so I could do physics problems with inclined planes).  Anyway, each row in the lab had two long lab desks that sat three each. I was tall and was always relegated to sit in the back, usually with boys.

In physics, I sat with these two who were supposedly “bad” kids, but I never had issues with them. They were always nice to me and respectful of my intense nerdiness. (The “nice” girls were always way nastier than any “bad” boy.)

Years later, I heard one of the boys had spent time in prison for a robbery, and was at that point out, taking care of his kid, while his wife was still locked up. It seemed surreal. The other boy I always thought was very sweet, but he was a hell raiser who, in hindsight, might have simply had ADHD. I wonder what happened with him. Unfortunately, I only remember his nickname.

And that’s the thing, I don’t really remember most of the kids I went to elementary school with. I might remember the first or the last name, but not both. You might think it’s not a big deal, but we were together, in the same class, for eight years. I feel like I should remember them better.

I was a middle-middle-class kid. A lot of my classmates were from blue-collar families. A few were what even then I’d recognized as somewhat classy, coming from old money, having had highly educated parents and grandparents and probably great-grandparents, too. In contrast, my maternal grandma had four years of schooling; my dad had a BS and got a MS when I was older; my mom had an associate’s degree.

I’m easily googlable, so, on occasion, a very rare occasion, I get a “Hey, what’s up?” A few years ago, one girl from elementary school contacted me and we shared how many kids we each had and who we were in contact with from school (me: no one; her: about half a dozen people via Facebook), and then it fizzled. It always does. I know there have been reunions, from which I’m separated by one ocean and several decades. We’re mostly curiosities to each other now. Still, I hope the kids are all right.

Hobbling, If Not Running

The week started off well, with two papers coming back with minor revisions. Not a moment too soon, as I’ve got major grants expiring and needing to be renewed later this year. My group does theory and simulation, and we’ve done better than experimental groups amid the pandemic, but it hasn’t been completely without a hitch. Over the first several months, students were bewildered and deeply stressed. The political turmoil hasn’t helped, as my students follow current events quite closely and have seemed really worried.

While their access to work hasn’t really been restricted in the same way that experimentalists’ work temporarily has (though people are back in most labs according to socially distanced measures), the fact that many of my students live alone and have not seen anyone familiar in person in months, and that the dark  pandemic clouds overhead have repeatedly clashed with the even darker clouds of political unrest, I would say that it’s no surprise that our output last year has not been what it would normally be.

I’ve focused heavily on everyone’s mental well-being, encouraging students to take breaks, making sure not to push if they seemed overwhelmed.

We’ve managed to get four papers submitted in the last few months, two more are about to go in, and at least two more by end of spring.

What’s most important is that we’ve done some great work despite the pandemic, resolved some head-scratchers, and had some long-standing projects come together quite beautifully. I hope this level of productivity will be enough and the new data exciting enough to propel us into the new funding cycle.

How’s your 2021 been so far, academic blogosphere? 

2021 Delurkpalooza

The first full week of January is traditionally International Blog Delurking Week.

Readers old and new, please delurk (even if you’re not actually lurking) and say hi, tell us something about yourself, how you found the blog, and/or how you’re doing in these strange times.

Don’t be shy!