This Is How You Lose the Time War a Faculty Member

As it often happens, a few things occur simultaneously and all lead to the same place. For me, that place has been the database of salaries for my university system. One of the things that nudged me to go there was this post by the Grumpies (congrats on the promotion and associated raise to 1/2 of nicoleandmaggie!). 

On the one hand, I am objectively (as in, compared to other humans who all need to eat, have shelter, raise kids, etc.) very well paid. I really can’t complain to nonacademic civilians. On the other hand, I appear not to be well paid at all compared to my department peers. There’s always been some salary inversion, in that the salaries of assistant professors tend to rise over time at a higher rate than the salaries of tenured faculty, because hiring is most competitive at the assistant-professor level. I’ve been aware of this phenomenon since I became faculty. However, it is fucking insane that a couple of people who are a  decade behind me in seniority now make as much as me, especially because I am not and have never been a professional slouch (all my blog whinging notwithstanding). The highest paid person, who’s about a decade ahead of me, is paid twice what I am. He’s a veritable superstar, so perhaps that makes sense. The rest, however, does not. 

I have a larger group and publish and raise funds at a rate higher than my disciplinary peers pretty much anywhere, and I am on par with any similarly sized experimental group in my college. Plus, I’ve been doing more than my share of teaching for years now, and doing a smashing job by all accounts, yet that clearly doesn’t seem to matter. Had I been projecting on screen directly from the damn textbook, as I know for a fact one of my contemporaries still does, apparently it would not have mattered. 

And this, blogosphere, is how you lose a faculty member. I am not a person who likes to waste time,  either my own or other people’s, so I didn’t want to engage in sending out feelers to see who might be willing to hire me elsewhere, because I didn’t want to be interviewing, getting offers, having counteroffers, the whole dance involving a dozen people just so I’d get proper compensation at my institution. Only it looks like I need to really make peace with moving, despite how sucky that might be for the family, because I am clearly being taken for granted here. 

I actually thought the department was doing a good job preemptively making faculty happy. Only I’m apparently much easier to make happy than others, because far more money seems to have been invested in the happiness of pretty much every other full professor in the department. 

I am so fucking angry right now. 

I need to gather my toys and take them elsewhere. 

(By the way, This Is How You Lose the Time War is a sci-fi novella.)

Bleatings, swervice, and badmins

Howdy, fellow academics!

The new school year is in full swing, and, oh boy, is it swinging! Straight for the fences! Only the bat is aimed at a faculty member’s head instead of a baseball! Sure, I’m yelling and mixing metaphors, but what do you expect from a headless academic blogger?

I’ve realized that, when the semester starts, my stress doesn’t come from my graduate research students or the undergrads/grad students in my classes. Yes, teaching and research are tiring and may sometimes be frustrating, but I often find them invigorating and, when I step back and reflect on my job, I always appreciate how important and meaningful these endeavors are.

Most of the stress comes from i) unnecessary in-person meetings, ii) institutional service in general, and iii) dealing with hostile administrative staff.

I have always hated in-person meetings. With increasing age, my tolerance of in-person meetings has been steadily declining, as my natural introverted tendencies have overtaken the sociability I’d taught myself to emulate. All facetime drains me, even with my loved ones, but I understand I need to appear in the flesh in front my family, the students in my classes, and my own research students.

I do not, however, understand why we have to meet in person for pretty much any service task or committee. Or for faculty meetings. I am much (much!) more comfortable meeting over Zoom now that the technology is available, as there are fewer issues I have to wrangle. I am less likely to run my mouth in Zoom meetings (I feel that’s always welcome by everyone, including me), more comfortable not having my whole body on display (because my body language reveals exactly how uncomfortable, bored, and/or annoyed I am), and let’s not forget how much easier it is for various people to jump in and share various materials (slides, links).

Despite me and others  mentioning a number of times our preference for online meetings, powers that be insist on in-person meetings for some inexplicable reason.  Only it’s not inexplicable; they feel in-person meetings play to their extrovert strengths, and have the added benefit of making the introverted, perhaps socially anxious likes of me, who are commonly found in STEM, feel unsteady and thus easier to manipulate. With this particular power that be, the manipulation toolbox also includes the ever-popular request to meet without saying what the meeting is about, as well as impromptu phone or video calls, where some significant commitment is asked of me and I’m pressured to say yes or no without being given the opportunity to think about things. I hate it all.

The second issue is service. Many service duties simply aren’t necessary. There are many more committees than they were when I first joined, yet somehow the university functioned back then. For example, must we continuously tweak our curriculum? We just finished a big overhaul. Can we leave it alone for a second? Must we increase the frequency of formal review of our assistant professors? They are stressed enough without us making them turn in loads of paperwork twice as often as before, and waste the senior folks’ time on having to review all these. Must we add new layers of oversight of established, tenured faculty, as though they were disobedient children? FFS, these people are seasoned professionals, let them do their jobs, and don’t waste their time. Someone suggested that we should have mentoring committees for senior faculty. The idea was shut down, thankfully, but can you imagine? When is someone enough of a professional grownup? Never, some would have you believe. These are all insults and power grabs under the guise of help and care. The ever-increasing amounts of paperwork we are supposed to generate for the purpose  of assessing shit that doesn’t need assessing are likely designed specifically to waste faculty time while also tying their hands. Is it the case of wanting us to be too busy and distracted to not notice the lack of resources, the lack of actual boots-on-the-ground staff support, the black hole into which the overhead funds seem to vanish, the increasing number of well-paid special deanlets and associate vice something-somethings, the inability to actually effect any meaningful change even though we’re supposed to pride ourselves in faculty governance?

The third issue, one that Grumpies noted in their recent post, is the increasingly hostile attitude of a lot of administrative staff. It has become a serious energy drain. I am still of the mind that our department staff, the people who do absolutely vital, day-to-day work with faculty and students, are pretty uniformly wonderful and helpful, and there is a feeling we are all on the same team. However, moving to the college level, let alone the university sponsored programs office, you can really taste the venom. I don’t know if  the pandemic made things worse somehow, but even before it, they were not on the same team with faculty at all. They were (and are) not only unhelpful, but actively obstructive and dismissive. 

Here’s a fresh anecdote. I had made a purchase on one of my grants a few years ago. At the time, multiple people in the department and college had approved said purchase, and in fact had made me get the item through them at 2x the price I could’ve paid otherwise. Recently, the grant was getting closed out, and the university-level accountants came back saying the purchase wasn’t allowed. I managed to hunt down all the emails, but it turned out every single person I’d worked with regarding that purchase (something like five total) and who had all vetted and approved the purchase were now gone (retired, moved elsewhere, etc.), and the currently relevant person at the college level claimed they could not find any record of the purchase. I was basically told that I never should’ve charged the item to the grant to begin with and I was left holding the (2x greater than I would’ve wanted) bill. When I told them it seemed unfair to have me waste discretionary funds on this now since I hadn’t bought this item in vacuum and that the college and department certainly shared responsibility, I was all but told to go fuck myself. I am not a particularly vindictive person, but if I found out this rude, dismissive person got a really bad case of food poisoning or, better yet, got in a heap of trouble because they condescended to someone who isn’t as tired, jaded, or wussy as I am, I would very much let myself enjoy one delicious Schadenfreude high.

How’s the semester going for you, blogosphere? 

Voting With Feet

I’m now what is considered a midcareer academic (in fact, I am exactly halfway between when I was hired and when I can be expected to retire), which means I know how to do my job, but have still (at least in principle) a lot of gas in the professional tank. Someone might say that midcareer is really just early old fartdom; that someone would be me.

Many things suck about old fartdom. For example, I actually need to wear reading glasses, which both delights me (I look very stylish) and saddens me (I am so ancient I need reading glasses). But a great thing, professionally, is being established enough that I no longer feel the pressure to play super nice to the detriment of my own well-being. For example, we recently hired someone for a non-faculty position. I was opposed to it because of my prior interactions with that person. I didn’t just keep it quiet. I brought  up the grievance; I sat through the uncomfortable rehashing of what exactly had transpired (nothing too awful, but enough that I want to avoid the person); I held my ground saying that I would not make a stinker if other people were in favor of this person, and I would do what is necessary to be collegial, but I did not want to be in charge of overseeing them or otherwise closely interacting with them. In times past, I would have just kept my mouth shut and would have never brought any of this up. This time I did. Maybe some colleagues consider me difficult now; so be it. At least I now have the cover for not interacting with the person beyond the bare minimum.

I recently did a similar thing regarding an external service task. I found out that someone who is very aggressive and condescending would be in the same group tending to this service task; a lot of folks in my field are like that, so it’s not like I am some sort of blushing debutante, and I can certainly hold my own, yet this person soured this (labor intensive) service task so much last time that my whole week was ruined, and I promised myself if I could avoid them in the future, I would. In contrast to what I did when I was younger, where I’d just withdraw from a task without a real explanation, undoubtedly causing people to consider me flaky, this time I shared with the person in charge exactly why I wanted to be removed.  Maybe that makes me difficult, but I don’t actually have to do this service task. I am established enough.  The aggressive jerk does not get to ruin another week of mine, and for the first time someone else at least knows about it, even if they don’t believe me. And my peace of mind is preserved.

I know people who’d be much braver and bolder in my shoes. Most such people are men. I, however, have felt that no one in the broader professional community really had my back, so I had to tread lightly, perhaps too lightly, but often probably not lightly enough as it seems women asserting themselves are always perceived as too forceful, no matter how gentle and tactful they are, because it’s never been about style, it’s about women asserting themselves  still being anathema, even if subconsciously.

So these are my tiny, perhaps pathetically tiny victories against myself, my perceptions of the others’ perceptions, and perhaps even the others’ actual perceptions. Most importantly, these tiny victories mean I’ve chosen my peace of mind over duty and peace — I won’t spend tons of time on barely compensated work, only to be berated and condescended to — which in itself is a pretty big victory.

That it took me this long to take these tiny steps is disheartening, yet also, sadly, entirely expected.

Summertime, and The Living Is Easy Not Bad Actually

I have been a delinquent blogger all summer long, but I don’t think my time of academic musings has come to an end. Come fall, venting and exasperation are likely to resume with renewed vigor.

It’s been a busy and eventful summer. The main news is that my (pretty insane) grant-writing efforts from this winter paid off, because I have received recommendation of funding for multiple grants. I get to keep my group members happy and funded for the next few years, and I get to bring on a couple more students. Realizing I’d be going from rags to riches has been surreal. I wish there were peers IRL with whom I could honestly discuss just how relieved and elated and incredulous I am at the news. I have to keep my cool with my colleagues because showing just how fucking happy I am makes me look like an amateur, or worse — someone who could have conceivably become one of the untouchables, a penniless piece of academic deadwood at a research university.

But the funding is real, and it’s more than a relief. For once, there’s actually joy and excitement at the end of a stressful grant-writing period.

In other news, we’ve moved labs, which has been its own ordeal. I ended up paying, from my personal funds, a moving company to come haul some of the heavier pieces of office furniture. I just couldn’t handle being given the runaround by those within the college who were supposed to help. It was a problem I could solve by throwing a little money at it, so I did.

There is also the Saga of Three Overpriced Office Chairs, but that epic, frustrating, and ultimately tragic (for my nerves and discretionary funding) tale will have to wait for another occasion.

I’ve had some instructional duties this summer, which have kept me extra busy, but now I have cool videos for a course, which is pretty neat. The department is ramping up its summer offerings, so while summer teaching is not going to be a regular thing for any one faculty member, people will be expected to occasionally step up and do it as we go forward.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to complete the sequel to Academaze. That will have to wait for some time when I have more bandwidth to go through the blog archives. I have, however, put down 50k words of a novel and written+published a bunch of flash fiction (might’ve even leveled up a little in terms of my craft). Overall, I’ve been working but not killing myself, reading a lot, writing some, and just trying to feel  human again.

How’s your summer been, academic blogosphere? 

Repost: A Chaos Goblin’s Guide to Writing (Reader Q&A)

(The original post and comments are here.)

I’ve written some (OK, maybe a lot) about the way I (dis)organize my time.

My goal is not to throw shade at list lovers and über-organizers. However, I feel like the only “how to” voices we hear online come from the people who advocate that success, money, and happiness stem from buying planners and planning-related stationery and/or boxes and/or shelves, hiring more people to take care of your kids (or relegating childcare to the possibly reluctant spouse), and basically making your time highly structured.

I am here for all those of us to are unwilling or unable to do some (or all) of the above.

My approach to life and everything else is that of a chaos goblin. If you’re a chaos goblin, too, if you do not strive to eradicate all disarray from your life and impose long-term order, but rather allow for (myriad) imperfections in yourself and others and in how you spend your time, and you focus on what suits you and yours best at any given moment, embracing the fact that you will have great days and terrible days and everything in between, and that it’s cruel (not to mention pointless) to force yourself to do stuff you absolutely don’t have to do, then maybe this blog post might just be of use to you.

This post was inspired by some writing-related questions I received from a reader. I will get to them shortly, but first some general principles.

I am not objectively lazy, even though I sometimes feel like I am. I always have many things going on, which means that there is usually something I will feel excited to tackle, and, in the absence of hard deadlines, I indulge myself as much as I can. Maybe I planned to work on a paper, and maybe I will, but maybe I won’t. If I am really itching to work on fiction this morning, I will. The thing is, by trying to do whatever pulls me most at any given moment, I actually get a ton done, and pretty fast, while I minimize feeling miserable.

I never miss real deadlines. However, any “deadline” that I deem soft,  unreasonable, or for other reasons missable or ignorable, I will do my best to miss and/or ignore. It’s a compulsion and connected to my personality. This is why I abhor the college SRO requiring single-PI proposals a week in advance when I know it never takes more than an hour from me enabling SRO access to the proposal actually being submitted. This is also why saying I will start writing a proposal three months in advance and finish it a month ahead of a deadline to let it marinate will never fucking work for me because I know this is a bullshit arbitrary deadline posed by me and I will delight in watching  it pass as time marches on toward the actual submission deadline. I really, really like to mess with myself whenever I try to be too tight-assed about anything. I don’t call myself a chaos goblin for nothing.

I have a family and while they do intrude on everything I do, non stop, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Husband and I never really outsourced childcare beyond daycare centers and afterschool. We’ve hired a babysitter maybe 10 times total for all of our kids combined. The people we trusted and asked to babysit (daycare teachers) usually didn’t need the little money they could make by babysitting as much as they, too, needed time off. So, as you read this, please note that implying I should get a babysitter to take care of some of the distractions will not be useful, especially now that my younger two are 9 and 13. To paraphrase Stephen King in On Writing: “Life is not a support system for art/work. It’s the other way around.”

Without further ado, here are the questions from reader Positive Definite, who’s part of an active academic writers group.

1. When and where do you like to write? Do you write in the same place at the same time every day, or can you write anytime, anywhere?

Technical writing: I use Latex for papers, MS Word for proposals and collaborative papers with experimentalists. I mostly do my technical writing on one of my desktops (work or home office).  I don’t like laptops, and do I use my laptop when I travel, but otherwise stick to the desktops. Before the pandemic, I did most of my technical writing at work or at home in the evenings. During the pandemic, well, it’s all at home, in my home office.

Creative writing: I use Google Docs and work either from my desktops or, quite often, on my phone. (I also read most books these days on the phone, desktop, and occasionally Kindle. I used to think I’d never abandon hard copy for ebooks, yet here we are. My already double-stacked shelves are thankful.)

One problem during the pandemic is that I share the home office with husband and Smurf. Husband has set up another space for himself since he’s been teaching online all summer, but Smurf and I are office mates pretty much all day, every day. He sits at his desk next to me and can get quite distracting (he’s a little chatterbox in general, plus he sometimes rages at his Roblox games). Middle Boy is just outside and often quite loud over Discord with his friends. Overall, there’s a lot of noise near my currently only desktop computer. To combat this, I put on headphones and, if I need to focus or the kids are really loud, I also play some music (the key here is to play something I like and know well). This is how I survived grad school in a cube farm with 20 other students, and the strategy works for most kid-generated distractions.

During the pandemic, I have actually managed to impose more structure on my time than usual — or, rather, more structure has spontaneously self-assembled from the chaos —  likely because I have much more time overall and am far less exhausted than I usually am. I think the absence of the face time associated with teaching, service, and travel makes all the difference. (Note that I don’t find interactions with my grad students or collaborators draining, but invigorating.) These days, I get enough sleep, an hour of exercise per day, and even though I cook every day, there’s still plenty of time to do work and to relax. I mostly write and edit fiction on the weekends and do work during the week; I participate in writing sprints every other Saturday, which gives me a story seed to work on and submit before the next sprint. However, work week/fiction weekend is not a hard and fast rule, and if I’m on a roll with either technical or creative writing, I will stay with it for as long as it lasts.

2. Do you have any pre-writing rituals or habits before you sit down to write?

I slaughter a small animal and offer it as a blood sacrifice to Athena.  Otherwise, I make sure I have my coffee and feel reasonably comfortable (not hungry or needing to go to the bathroom), and that’s about it. I also make sure to preempt whatever whining might be coming my way in the near future (e.g., I feed anyone who needs to be fed).

Twitter is my most sinister time drain (I’m a bit too active on literary Twitter, not too active on the academic one). I use the lockdown feature in LeechBlock (add-on for Chrome) for 2-3 hours at the time when I need to do something. The lockdown works much better for me than scheduling large blocked-out slots, because I will just ignore the latter and open an incognito window. The lockdown, however, is activated when I need it and it’s not unrealistically long, so I don’t feel the need to circumvent it. I will use lockdown several times a day during busy days.

3. Do you have any methods for managing tasks and your time to stay productive and not let projects and deadlines become overwhelming?

Not really, at least nothing that I can easily articulate and share. Also not much that is set in stone, because I like to change things up, and because I can never stick with any measures that feel punitive, even if they were successful in the past. (For example, this is  why I gave up on calorie tracking;  while it worked for weight loss, it’s fucking soul-crushing, makes me overfocus on food, frustrates me because who the fuck knows how many calories are in the stuff I cook, and just makes me feel like an anally retentive robot.)  Finally, I am not opposed to (and by not opposed to I mean I really crave) the adrenaline rush; as someone said, “Deadlines focus the mind.” I might sing a different tune if I were in industry, but, in academia, there are few deadlines that are really inflexible.

I do occasionally make big-picture (like six months to a year) rough plans for getting the papers out, write those up and share them with my students, so they know what’s coming down the pike.  This is especially important in the year before a major grant is up for renewal, but even so the deadlines are really loose (“This to be done by end of this semester”).

At the beginning of a week, I decide on a few big things that I should work on and roughly when, but I am prepared to have a bad week (e.g., this morning started with two fiction declines, yay Monday!) or for something urgent to fall into my lap (e.g., last-minute tenure letter request, anyone?). So I try not to sweat it if I can’t make the original weekly plan. There’s always another week. Plus, I sometimes have a  really awesome week and get a ton done faster than expected, which is always a treat.

I’ve really tried not to be too cruel with myself during the pandemic. I am doing well overall, being that my group does math and computing so we’ve continued pretty much undeterred through the crisis. I’ve been trying to focus on the group members’ spirits remaining high, and on everyone doing well mentally and physically. Students have bad/down weeks and I would never take it against them, so I try not to take it against myself, either, although I am sure the students expect me not to have any downtime myself. I am not going to dwell on my issues with them, as it would erode my authority, but they could easily reason to the conclusion that I, too, sometimes need a break simply because I’m human who is responsible for many other humans.

In all, I do make loose long-term plans (written) and loose short-term plans (unwritten), which often change.

4. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received about writing?

I can’t say that I have ever received explicit writing advice from anyone when it comes to technical writing. But here are some things that I consider fundamental and try to impart on my graduate  students and postdocs (many of whom are not native speakers of English): correctness, clarity, and logical flow before all else. If it’s crystal clear what you are trying to say and there’s a logical thread connecting your arguments, you are most of the way there. Engaging, beautiful prose, light as a butterfly’s wings, that comes later.

When it comes to fiction, I feel like I probably care about plot more than most literary writers and do not mind spare prose at all, especially if it is clear and precise. One good metaphor or simile can do wonders; I don’t need a pile of bland adjectives instead. And I fucking hate hate HATE it when ornate language is used to mask the absence of plot or authorial vision, or to plug giant logical holes. In fiction, the best pieces of advice are:
a) Make sure the reader cares about your characters, usually because the characters care about something, too, otherwise even the most intricately plotted piece will ring hollow.
b) You could (and should) always have more tension/conflict in your story.
c) Start the story as close to the inciting incident as possible.

Feedback on writing is paramount. For young technical writers, there’s the advisor, but before the advisor there are senior members of the group. They have the benefit of knowing the jargon and being further along in the writing journey, and will give the feedback of a benevolent, interested reader.

With creative writing, feedback is similarly important. I review a lot of other people’s work and have found a small number of people from whose critiques I greatly benefit. They like my work, have a similar style, work in the same genres as I do, and are either on par or a bit ahead in the writing game. You need a critique partner (often called a beta reader) who gets you, because their job is to understand what you tried to do and let you know if, when, and how you failed to achieve your own objective, then to possibly offer solutions. Critique partners might be blunt but usually aren’t, and I don’t mind either way, because I trust them. If you are critiquing someone you don’t know well, always err on the side of kindness and express everything as your personal opinion, which it really is. “This seems to me…”; “It reads to me like this happens…”; “This part wasn’t clear to me; you might want to reword it. Here is a suggestion…” This advice goes back to these excellent posts from here and here.

5. Do you ever struggle with writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it? If not, how do you prevent it?

Not really. But it’s important to define what writer’s block actually is. I think most people mean “I have decided that I need to write this, now, and I have this amount of time available for the task, yet nothing is coming out.” I certainly know how this feels, but I don’t think this is a block of any kind; in my opinion, this is your creative brain fighting the arbitrary shackles you’ve put on it. I certainly cannot force myself to write in a highly regimented way. If there’s a big important deadline coming, for instance a proposal deadline, I never have issues buckling down and getting to work — my creative brain has never let me down when it’s really important. However, I think that’s because during other times, I try to give it free rein and work on what I (or rather my creative parts) feel like working on. If I am itching to write a story, I will write a story. Then I will get energized by reading new papers or talking to my students, and before you know it I am working on a manuscript again.

There are also days when I feel irritable and unmotivated. I try to give myself a break if it’s clear I am craving a break. In our line of work, a few days of reading for pleasure or binging Netflix is not the end of the world. If the creative well is dry and it begs you to replenish it, just do it. You will be back sooner and going full steam after you’ve rested.

My recommendation is to listen to this inner voice as much as you can when it’s telling you what it wants to do and, if you can help it, don’t override it. In creative endeavors, indulge yourself as much as you can. And get lots of hobbies! If you are anything like me, having many things you can do means you fight boredom easily, always feel intellectually engaged, draw inspiration from all sorts of sources, and get plenty done on various fronts.

Finally, I have confidence that the muse will come back. It always does, in time, after I have fed it enough through rest and consuming other people’s science and/or art. Do not abuse the muse with unreasonable expectations.

6. Do you have any favorite books, not necessarily about writing, that have influenced the way you write?

In terms of technical writing, I would say no. My advisor was quite hands off and didn’t really edit my papers much, so whatever I learned, I picked up on my own by reading papers and analyzing them. Why does this paper read so well? What are the moving parts? How did they structure their argument? What makes these other papers so boring? How would I rewrite this crappy sentence or this verbose paragraph?

I have been blogging for the last 10+ years, and blogging has helped both my scientific writing  and served as a great preparation for creative writing. All forms of writing benefit from clarity, precision, and logic. In all forms of writing, knowing exactly how certain syntactic structures or choices in wording and punctuation affect your reader make you a better communicator. All forms of writing can and do feed into one another.

If you aspire to become a great technical writer, write in any shape or form you can. Keep a journal. Start a blog on some topics you are passionate about. Write poetry or short fiction or screenplays. Connect with other writers.

I think scientific writing has made me a pretty decent editor when it comes to creative writing (at least of prose). Writing buddies have complimented my ability to spot a problem and articulate why exactly it is a problem. I am sure this stems from my analytical approach to, well, everything.

A book about technical writing that many seem to like: Joshua Schimel’s Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded. I have it, and I like it, but I am not a die-hard fan, perhaps because by the time I got to it, I felt I already knew most of what is covered therein.

I enjoyed most of Stephen Pinker’s The Sense of Style , while the oldie but goodie Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is a book every writer should have on hand.

If you are into writing and selling short genre fiction, Douglas Smith’s Playing the Short Game: How to Market and Sell Short Fiction is popular, although I found it soul-crushing in its dismissal of everything that’s not a sale at a professional rate, especially at this day and age when short speculative fiction is no longer a viable commercial enterprise.

The book I love with a fiery passion of a thousand suns is Stephen King’s On Writing (I wrote about it here, and the post is part of a rather extensive chapter on writing in Academaze). On Writing is part memoir, part writing manual, and 100% un-put-downable, even on repeated reads.

Wise and worldly readers, please share your own pearls of writerly wisdom!

Bits of Early Summer

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been pushing out some papers and tending to my mentoring and editorial duties, while also trying to get as much rest as I can before I start summer teaching. So I’ve been reading a lot; Kindle app informs me I’ve read 63 books since the start of the year, which makes it just under 3 books per week on average. In reality, it’s definitely been fewer than that during the semester (1-2/week at the most, with some weeks skipped completely) and more since the classes ended (4+/week). I’m getting my money’s worth out of Kindle Unlimited and then some. It’s funny, I moved from TV and movies to reading almost exclusively; I don’t know if all this reading is a consequence of or a reason for reduced video entertainment. It seems like there’s nothing good on Netflix or Amazon Prime. OK, I know that’s not true, but most of the time that’s what it feels like, because I usually browse and come up empty. (Except for Danish and Norwegian shows. I will watch any show cooked up in the far north; I don’t care about the genre. I want them all!)

Otherwise, my group has been moving labs. We have some new undergrads starting out, some internal money coming in. I still have a gazillion pending grants, and we’re entering that humiliating stage where they’ve been pending for 6+ months and I am starting to get my hopes up, whereas it will turn out that  all this has been is one giant administrative delay after another on the road to inevitable declinations. 

In fiction news, some nice acceptances. I wrote like a fiend in 2020, then some pretty disheartening grant declinations took the wind out of my sails and I wrote very little and very poorly in 2021. I am pleased to report that I might’ve gotten my fiction mojo back, at least for now, and the stuff I’m producing is of higher quality than before, so it appears some leveling up might’ve happened. This goes to show that periods of hibernation, of reduced activity, are necessary for growth and development.  This holds for fiction as well as research, and I’d say probably for any creative endeavor. Or any human endeavor, really. Big changes require a lot of stored energy. 

Last but not least, Eldest has graduated college (!) and Smurf has finished elementary school (!). Long-time readers might remember that I posted about Smurf’s birth on the now-defunct Academic Jungle blog back in 2011. Well, Smurf will be 11 this month. (Inset the obligatory “Time flies!” quip here.) 

How’ve you been, blogosphere? What’s been on your mind? Let me know in the comments. 

Till next time, here’s some Twitter-sourced levity. 


Invited to Dance

A few months ago, I met up with a former department colleague who had moved to another institution nearly a decade ago. It was really nice to catch up. His significant other is in the same technical field as we are, and she works as a (nonacademic) research scientist. As we chatted, the colleague said how his significant other “expects to be invited to dance” (in the sense that she waits to be offered opportunities or invited to contribute), while men never do. He attributed this expectation of hers to her current dissatisfaction with her professional trajectory.

I have thought about what he said many times since we met. I know exactly what he meant, and I know exactly what he described, and at the same time I feel a deep kinship with the woman scientist and an understanding of what she wants and expects, what she believes is expected of her; most of all, I feel her frustration with being overlooked and ignored.

I also feel exhaustion after two decades of playing by the rules made for someone else, on a playfield meant for someone else, among players who are all very different from me. Recently, I was part of a new collaboration. It started with me and a colleague I know well, and another colleague of said colleague. Then there was another, and another, and another, and all of a sudden there’s this big team (other than me, all men), and everyone is talking all over one other, and people are pulling and pushing in different directions, and it is just a mess. This type of dynamics always makes me want to flee. I don’t enjoy these pissing contests and I have no patience for herding cats. The fact that modern funding mechanisms all seem to favor large collaborations with this type of dynamics is definitely not a great thing in my book.

Collaborations depend on the people in them and can’t just be thrown together haphazardly. I have several long-term collaborators, but I have also had probably 3-4x more that were short term. There has to be enough technical complementarity and mutual respect in order for things to work long-term. Often, one of the ingredients is lacking. Often, the lacking ingredient is the second one.

I think of my former colleague’s partner, and her expectation to be invited to dance. I don’t blame her. I think I expect that, too. We as women in the physical sciences STEM, where 10-15% of us is still the norm, are always entering rooms full of men, conversations full of men, collaborations full of men. We are always being evaluated and devaluated by men. Behavior expectations we have to adhere to are those made for men. There is nothing inviting, nothing welcoming about the whole enterprise of science, because it is made by men and for men, who seem intent on measuring metaphorical d*cks and hazing each other all the way to retirement. We women are among hostile native inhabitants of our professional fields, where we need to play by the rules that are often antithetical to how we were socialized to behave, and many (most?) of our strengths are considered to lie somewhere between a nuisance and an unforgivable weakness. Our judgement and qualifications are questioned at every turn, regardless of how senior or accomplished we are.

It is an exhausting, dispiriting predicament to spend one’s career being told, often obliquely but sometimes less so, that the reason you are not a more successful scientist is that you are not very good at being a male scientist.

May Flowers Make You Sneeze

It’s finals week. I have a mountain of grading.

I decided I would take it easy this week, so I am rested for next week, when I really need to push some papers out in the month before onerous summer obligations start. This planned week of rest involves grading, committee work, and trying to clear out the backlog in my editorial duties, a proposal review, a preproposal review, and two manuscript reviews. Said rest means I will spread them out and not do them all in one day.

My computer at work died. Which is fine, actually, as I’d never moved back into it after the pandemic. My home desktop is still my main desktop.

Once you are 100+ papers into your career, it’s hard to get excited about additional ones going out. They are exciting for graduate students, and necessary to keep the career going, but there’s a definite ‘meh, been there, done that’ aspect to it.

I had such a humongous class this past semester, I think it broke me a little, or a lot. All the accommodations, then makeups for COVID and other stuff like athletic meetings, and finally both COVID and accommodations… I wrote multiple versions of every test. It was a lot.

I still have a million pending grants.

It’s so important to get along with colleagues day-to-day. I don’t think we emphasize that enough, being in a functional department, where disagreements happen, people discuss issues, and then everyone moves on.

We all focus on external recognition and citations and accolades from people who barely know us, when so much of life satisfaction comes from what we do, or don’t do, on a daily basis. I think it’s helpful to remember this.

Given all the stuff I now have to do this summer, I am sad that I won’t have the time to spend on my extracurriculars (Academaze sequel and my novel). I hope at least one of them happens, though, probably the novel, as I’m more excited about that than I am about sifting though the blog archives, if I am being completely honest. But now that I wrote it down, I’m having second thoughts. Maybe the Academaze sequel would be more manageable? Decisions, decisions.

Speaking of the novel, even if I squeeze out 500-1000 words per day, which isn’t too hard, I should have a draft in a few months. Plus I have writer friends on this journey — gourd, that sounds cheesy; but I do have friends who are in the same boat, so facing similar challenges at the same time should be helpful.

I have fallen down the Bridgerton rabbit hole and have yet to find my way out. Season 2 is 🔥🔥🔥!

This post title brought to you by all the sneezing students in today’s exam.

How’s life/end of semester/2022 treating you, blogosphere?

Fifteen-minute stream-of-consciousness post

Inspired by gwinne, I give you a 15-min stream-of-consciousness post.

  • One more week left in the semester (after this week). I can’t wait. I am completely exhausted. Huge undergrad class plus grad class as overload.
  • I could spend 40+ hours per week doing nothing but teaching and service and meeting with students and collaborators. Teaching and associated grading and office hours have taken a ton of time this semester. I am on a bunch of personnel-related committees, including one search that was moderately dramatic but ultimately successful. I am an associate editor for two journals, one of which keeps me very busy. I write letters for people’s tenure, promotions, awards.  I review papers and proposals. I spend hours in meetings of various kinds. This has been a persistent issue with this job — the fact that you have to fight hard to find the time to do the one aspect of your job that you trained hard for and are uniquely positioned to do. I will never get used to it.
  • I had grand plans for the summer but have since been roped into department-benefitting activities. I have mixed feelings about it. There will be extra payment, and now I have a good excuse not to travel overseas. But still, mixed feelings. In addition to pushing out papers and proposals, I was going to spend some time on the second installment of Academaze (I have a cool cover already done and all) and on my novel, but I think those will have to wait.
  • It’s been two years since my 2020 sabbatical (which was supposed to be restorative, but instead got eaten by the pandemic) ended, and I am ready for the next one. Although, after the pandemic, isn’t everyone?
  • My group is supposed to move labs in a couple of weeks. I feel exhausted just thinking about it.
  • I feel exhausted thinking about summer vacation. I just wanna be left alone to read and watch shows.
  • Still in grant limbo for like a million grants. I could be broke or flush next year. Everything is still up in the air.
  • We (academia) have spent a lot of time and energy making sure the students are supported through the pandemic etc. Nobody gives a shit about faculty or staff. Although I don’t actually know who it is who’s supposed to give a shit, to be honest. My own experience of being an adult is that others always lean on me, and I never have anyone to lean on. It’s exhausting always having to have one’s shit together. On the one hand, I remind myself that I am an adult and should cut the whining; of course I should always have my shit together. On the other hand, I don’t so much need someone to lean on as much as I wish others wouldn’t lean on me quite so much, you know? Like, I can hold myself up fine, but it gets to be too much to always have to prop a bunch of other people and all their issues, too.
  • Required flexibility and accommodations for students during instruction and testing have become insane. For the second midterm in the giant undergraduate class, I had to administer four separate tests. The main test, then one for the people with documented accommodations (in a separate building that helps with that), then another one the week after for traveling athletes and students who were ill (wrote a new test for this), and then yet another one two weeks later for those who were ill even longer. I don’t know who I’m expecting to help with all this, tbh, I just wish there were someone  to do it all who’s not me. I am resentful of all the time and effort I have to spend on coordinating all this, none of which requires a PhD.
  • Today was my dedicated day for research. ROFL. Of course I have to grade a bunch of grad-student assignments, since I’ve neglected that class in favor of the huge undergrad one, and I have to catch up on reviewing papers.
  • Sometimes I think academic jobs are pure insanity. Other times, I feel there is no place I’d rather be. Most of the time, it’s both.
  • Among other things, being a grownup means wanting/needing validation and reassurance as much as ever, but knowing that it’s never coming. Knowing you’re supposed to be a source of perpetual drive, ideas, and positivity not just for yourself but for your research group and your family. Being able to have it all drained endlessly and still somehow always keep going. Cue novels and TV shows, my escapist attempts at replenishing what is constantly siphoned away.

How’ve you been, academic blogosphere?