Day: February 18, 2014

Monday Night Grumps

I had a really, really long day. I spent 12 hours at work, and much of it on face time. I prepped a class, then taught the class, then spent the next 7 hours meeting with a total of 14 different students: 2 for office hours, 3 who are my research students about various points where they were stuck on their projects, and 9 for an internal examination procedure that is such a freakin’ waste of time that I break out in hives every semester as I have to do it. And then I graded the midterm. So I am very tired and very grumpy, I am late with my annual report, haven’t made much headway in grading the exam, plus there is a paper that we need to revise and resubmit and two more first drafts in the pipeline but I haven’t been able to get to any of it do it because I haven’t been able to dig myself from under the mountain of service and teaching. Too little progress on research makes me very unhappy; it is a key part of my work, one that’s creative, yet I seem to have to do everything else before I can treat myself to some delicious paper writing.

I try to keep it in perspective that I have a really good job at a really good place, and that I have tenure, a good salary, and good graduate students with whom I enjoy working. But when I am tired and grumpy, the things that I try really hard to not think about surface and sometimes get poured into a blog post.

There is relentless pressure from the administration to go get more money, money, money, money. I am usually able to convince myself that it is a good thing to go for external funds, that applying for funding helps differentiate good ideas from bad ones, but I have always held that applying for money is for the purpose of doing research. Unfortunately, it is getting harder and harder to pretend that the administration actually cares about people doing research at all; they care about research success to the extent to which success brings prominence to the school/college/department and enables you to get even more money.

We constantly talk about money, getting more money, always more more more money. Nobody every shuts up about the goddamn money. If you have a lot of money, people listen to you (even if you have an abysmally low paper per dollar ratio, and even if your citations are nowhere near where they should be).  Now the department can’t cover basic operations because the higher-up administration expects that some of it will be covered by external funds and we are not buying out as much as we can (buyout = you can reduce teaching load by paying a part of your academic-year salary, normally part of the department budget, from external grants).  There is no return from the overheard (overhead =  the 1/3 or more off the top of every grant that the university skims). It is very hard to get matching funds for anything. TA support is asymptotically approaching zero. We will be facing a likely increase in the teaching load. I know, those who are not at R1’s are rolling their eyes and thinking “Boohoo, cry me a river!” But the thing is we are supposed to spend a large amount of time on writing grants and doing research. Now the time to do research is getting squeezed out from all sides — more teaching, more service, more idiotic paperwork of all sorts (the staff has been decimated so we are ll our own secretaries and accountants and travel agents), more emphasis on getting grants so we can not only give the overhead to the university but also buy out from teaching, which we have to do because the loads were increased to make us to spend more money just to reduce it back to the levels before, and only so we’d have more time to write more grants.

The push in recent years towards going big, going bigger, growing, building centers, building consortia, has become relentless. I hate that model of doing science, I was part of one center for a long time and it’s an administrative nightmare; for the people who use the shared facilities it’s probably more worthwhile, but, for me, it was one student worth of money, yet with a staggering time commitment and paperwork and constant reports and advisory committee presentations, all of which took way more time than my considerably larger and less bullshit-heavy single-investigator grants. Plus the politics was just ridiculous, and the potential for getting screwed over on account of money was tremendous. There are several colleagues with whom I will never collaborate based on what I learned about them during my time in the center; probably goes both ways.

But these are multi-million-dollar centers, which means they bring multi-million-dollar overhead to the university, along with the fame and prestige for the PI who is a big salesman in charge. I don’t begrudge the people who are good at doing this type of work, I really don’t, more power to them; being able to swing it in these  biggest of leagues is not a common trait. What pisses me off is that there seems to be no place any more for a person who has a medium-sized group and brings in enough money to sustain a research program, and then actually works with group members on addressing the proposed problems. This modus operandi seems to be headed for extinction, as it means you are not superstar material. Since when have thinking about and actually doing science become irrelevant for, you know, science? Sometimes I feel like I am in this vortex in which it’s all money, preliminary results to get more money, then more money, more preliminary results, and where finishing good hypothesis-driven work is completely irrelevant, especially in terms of how much sway you have in your local habitat.

On an unrelated note, I am having a really tough class this semester. It’s the same course as last semester, where I had great rapport with the students. This semester, you can hear a pin drop in the classroom. Everyone is completely quiet, it’s  very hard to get a peep out of anyone, no matter how much I try to engage them. There is a kid in the back who drives me crazy by constantly texting in class. This class is an elective, why are you even here if you are not paying attention? Why are you in class if you don’t want to learn? What are your parents paying for?

The class seems to be even more poorly prepared mathematically than the class last semester. I try to keep myself chipper, and I know they are young and they can learn and they weren’t educated all that well, but it is so frustrating not being able to teach them this advanced material because we are forever getting stuck with getting algebraic expressions to a common denominator, or pointing out that i^2=-1 and thus -i=1/i (i is the imaginary number).  Usually I talk myself into “it’s not a big deal” mode, but sometimes it’s really hard.

I hate it that we shelter the students from math so much; everyone is always apologizing for serving them any math at all. There is a derivation that we did in class today that they easily could have done freshman or sophomore year. They say it was sort of shown to them but they were told to just remember the end formulas, and they did. Nobody had any idea about the assumptions that resulted in the formula and they looked bored as we went into the details. Considering that the material coming up is going to be considerably more abstract, I am bracing for some difficult months ahead…