Month: March 2016

Guest Post: Saying Yes

By Psykadamnit

Xykademiqz wrote a very important post on how vital it is to learn to say “no” to service requests.  I want to temper that with some notes on when you really ought to say “yes”.

You should say “yes” if you’re the person who stood up in department meeting and said “The department really ought to…”  If you follow that with “…but not me, obviously this should be done by [committee that you aren’t on]” then you are part of the problem.  So say “yes” to your own proposals.  And not just the fun part, where you come up with the reading list for the new class or the design for the cool new experiment.  Say “yes” to the administrivia, the part where you write long reports explaining (in proper Eduspeak) that requiring a course on statistical analysis of experimental data will help promote “Programmatic Outcome 2b: Quantitative Reasoning Skills””, and the part where you explain that you will assess these reasoning skills using gobbledygook that sounds an awful lot like grading assignments but is totally different from grading because it’s being done in Educrat Newspeak.  Or the part where you sit down with the department technical staff and figure out how to demonstrate to the campus safety officials that the Automatic Safety Shutdown on that shiny new piece of lab equipment will turn the device off when needed, and you do so without turning on the device so that the Automatic Safety Shutdown can turn it off (because turning it on before you’ve demonstrated that you can turn it off would run afoul of safety regulations).  If you refuse to do that, after being the one who spoke up in department meeting and said “We should buy this new equipment and use it in our lab class!” then you are part of the problem.

Oh, and if somebody who volunteered for a bunch of university service finds a way to deliver 95% of what the department wanted, including 95% of what YOU said you wanted during a department meeting, don’t gripe about the remaining 5%.  Unless you’re willing to join those university-level committees and spend a year fighting for it.

A Good Little Girl

When you are a woman in a male-dominated STEM field, weird things happen to you. People say weird shit or give you weird looks or write weird letters of recommendation for you. And this is just the good guys, the male colleagues who are at the core respectful and supportive of you.

A few years ago, there was some paperwork to be submitted by a deadline as part of a large collaboration. I was stressing out about it, and a very senior collaborator (older than my father) was mocking me for wanting to make the deadline “like a good little girl.”

And you know what? He was right. As a woman in science, who’s always done well in school, I have always been a good little girl who played by the rules. I see the same thing with the students in my undergraduate courses. Young women are very rare, but the average performance quality of the women is much higher than the average of the male students. And the good female students follow the class rules, while many of the good male students do not. The good female students come to lectures, come to discussion, and start their homework on time; when I emphasize something in class as important to remember, they remember it and are able to do it on the exam. With good male students, there are those who are “good little boys,” but there are a number of those who really have atrocious study habits, who skip classes, then cram and bother me mercilessly right before the exam to try to make up for what they missed; there is nothing of the kind among the strong female performers.

Even in my research group, the young women are uniformly the cream of the crop. They write the best-quality, well-commented code; when I ask them to complete the code documentation before they leave, they actually do it. On average, their technical writing is better, they are more methodical and less sloppy in their research, and generally follow instructions better/are more coachable than my male students, and thus improve faster along every training direction (technical competence, data visualization, technical writing, presenting).

With smart male students, I sometimes have to battle over the stupidest things. Yesterday, I told a student to try something because the simulation wasn’t working. He was grumbling because he “knew” it wouldn’t work; I said he had to do it anyway, and to do it and come show me. Of course, it worked, and he seemed surprised that it was actually a good idea. *eyeroll* I never have to put up with such crap with female students. If I ask that they do something, they go and do it, and then also build upon it and develop it in different directions or augment or try something new. There is never that step that’s like pulling teeth to get them to simply do what I say. I am not saying all male students are disobedient, far from it; rather, if I have to pull my hair out because someone is obstinate, it’s always a boy, never a girl.

I am sure these experiences have to do with how boys and girls are socialized. Across cultures, girls are taught to be people-pleasers and to defer to authority (men from certain cultures are taught the latter, as well, and it shows in how they respond to coaching). The challenge is to get women to balance this deep-seated deference with speaking their own mind, developing and sharing their own ideas, and getting recognition for them.

Now, where am I going with this? Say, a good little girl grows up and gets a faculty position. Maybe that good little girl is me, or you.

The good little girl is in danger of a) doing much more service then necessary, b) doing much more or more laborious teaching than the colleagues who are not good little girls, c) generally being misinformed about what all that teaching and service really do for her career, because everyone expects her to act as a good little girl and, at the same time, thinks less of her for doing so.

People tell you that it’s important to do service, because journal editors remember you when you review for them and university colleagues remember you when you serve on their committees and program managers remember you when you serve on their panels. I am definitely guilty of vastly overestimating how much certain service roles would benefit my career. For example, I sat on 3-4 panels by the same program manager at the NSF, where I thought I would eventually get funding. I never did, and he left, so all of that is just a waste of time. Sure, maybe it helped make me a better proposal writer, but I doubt it; it’s the case of diminishing returns — I either know or don’t know how to write proposals at this stage of my career, I am not going to have my eyes miraculously open in this regard over a decade into a faculty position.

Similarly, there were university awards that I felt my service on certain committees might help me get. I did get them. But then I saw my colleagues, who completely eschew all service, getting similar awards, and I felt like I have wasted a ton of time for no good reason.

I review papers for journals, probably a paper per week, because I feel that if I am to be entitled to good reviews of my own work, I should do the same for others. It turns out, there are plenty of people who have high demands on the reviews they receive, but review very little themselves because they feel it’s not a good use of their time. (How does the dichotomy not blow their minds?)  A colleague with a huge group literally laughed at me for reviewing a lot for a journal where we both publish. “You do realize that’s not going to help you get your own papers published, right?” he said.

It is entirely possible to be very successful and to be completely selfish. These people are the ones who are happy to let the likes of me — the good little girls, who feel insecure about their belonging in the enterprise of science and thus want to do their share, to please, to not feel like they take more than they deserve and they deserve so little — do well more than necessary, as it benefits them. Women do more teaching and service than average in their academic STEM departments (this is true across my college) because everyone gently perpetuates this myth that more teaching and service will benefit the women in the long run. Maybe, but it’s a weak, higher-order effect.

Scratch that. It’s mostly a lie. Any recognition or warmth or fuzziness that your willingness to please and serve and make deadlines and generally play by the rules will produce for you, the good little girl, among your colleagues, takes too much of your time (the time that’s subtracted from research, family, hobbies, watching grass grow) yet is much, much  smaller than the recognition than any of your self-centered colleagues gets for bringing in another grant or publishing another Glamour Mag while doing minimal service and teaching.

If you feel teaching and service are important, that the institution wouldn’t function without them, and if you really truly enjoy these activities, then go ahead and do them. But please don’t do them because you think they will benefit your career, other than in a very small and indirect way. People who are whispering these lies in your ear want you to be the one doing the dirty work, so they’d be free to pursue the really high-payoff activities. They are not evil incarnate; they do it because they can. They simply recognize that you are a good little girl, and we all know the good little girls will do anything to be liked and useful and helpful. There is no benefit to you if you do as expected; there is a likability penalty if you don’t.

Don’t fall for the bullshit. Your success does not depend solely on them liking you. If you kick their butt with your record, they can dislike you and you will still be fine. More than fine, actually.

You may be a good little girl, but you are not a stupid one.

Are you postponing working on your own papers or proposals, or not relaxing over the weekend, because you are constantly backlogged with service obligations and teaching?
Don’t. Just don’t. As someone who does that constantly, I am telling you — just don’t.

You have tenure? Congratulations! Now:

  • Go, right this minute, and put a “Not available to review” status at journals that often prompt you to review for them. Commit to rejecting all new review requests, no matter who sent them, for the next 2 months.
  • Get off of any new committees that you were put on in the past month. Or the past six months. Cite a scheduling or personal conflict.  Apologize profusely.
    Many people think women are flakes anyway. You might as well act like one, for once.
  • Stop attending faculty meetings till the end of the semester. Cite a scheduling or, better yet, a research-related conflict.
  • Write down (or pull up, if you have it already) a list of all papers you have in the works with your students, and write a revised, accelerated timeline for the submission of each. Meet with students at least once about each of those papers in the coming 2 weeks.
  • Write down (or pull up, if you have it already) a list of all proposals you have in the works and write a revised, accelerated timeline for the submission of each.
  • Decide on a small number of trips you will take each year. I traveled twice a month every month of the last year and have barely recovered.
    I think I should aim for a number of trips between 5 and 10 per year. 1-2 funding related, 4-6 talks at conferences/universities. 1-2 freebies, such as conferences where you can learn something new. That’s plenty.
  • Commit to 2 months of no work email on the weekends. None whatsoever. (It can be done. So I hear.)
  • Commit to 2 months of reading 1 nontechnical book per week. (Or running. Or yoga. Or blogging. Or anything that you can do just for you.)
  • Vow to never again miss out on family fun (or quality time with your dog/marathon/whatever) because of stupid service.

People seem not to realize that good little girls become awesome grown women. Even the women seem to occasionally forget it.

We could and should be just as self-centered as any mischievous little boy.


Improv Blogging, the Not Really Dead Edition

I am not dead. Well, at least not literally.

Another insight from Stephen King’s “On Writing”: He wrote the least when he worked as an English prof at a college. All that interaction with language while teaching, and especially grading student essays, left him completely drained. He wrote much more when he worked  poorly paid, low-skill jobs; they left his mind free to wonder. I have been really, really busy with work this semester and when the time comes to sit down and blog, I’ve got nothing to give…

It is fundamentally impossible to ever catch up on work in academia. There is a cartoon in it. Another night, perhaps.

There was a discussion on DM’s blog on how women, and especially women of color, do much more service than men (especially white). Lots of incredulity arose in the comments. I completely believe the data, as it aligns with my own anecdata. Every year, we get a list of service roles (department and university) for all faculty in the department. It’s not hard to count how many committees each person serves on, and once you have been faculty for a while, you know which ones are labor-intensive. Each of the women (women make <20% of faculty) is on 2-3 times more committees than the average. There are men who serve a lot, but there are a few men (a nice equal mixture of white and Asian, in fact) who serve much below average, just the bare mandated minimum of committees. Most of the service shirkers are prima donnas whose time is presumably too valuable to be wasted on service. Women serve because a) people ask them to, b) women are socialized to be helpful/communal, c) people expect the women to be helpful/communal and react much more negatively to women being selfish than to men being selfish, d) junior women are not stupid, and they are rightly concerned that rejecting service will make them look bad, like poor department citizens, in a way that doesn’t hold for men. If you don’t want women to serve too much, don’t ask them so much; it’s douchey to say, “Well, she should have just said no that committee, what’s the harm in asking?” when the very act of asking all the effing time shows that women are expected to jump to serve.

I almost, ALMOST, sent an angry letter to my chair because I get no help with teaching and it’s taking too much of my time and nobody seems to give a shit that enrollments are swelling and a few faculty keep teaching high-enrollment undergrad courses, while the aforementioned prima donnas haven’t seen anyone younger than a senior in their courses in many, many years. I wish I didn’t give a damn about teaching and could just, like some of my colleagues, give the exact same homework and exams for a freakin’ decade; who cares that there are solutions to all exams are already in fraternity archives?

Instead to giving the department chair a piece of my mind, I will rely on the passive-aggressive path (preferred in this part of the country) of keeping my mouth shut, ignoring faculty meetings, shirking service, and then in a year or two just come with an offer from another institution. Because if I complain, he will again insult me by trying to placate me, as if I am a toddler undergoing a tantrum and not a faculty member with a serious grievance, with some bullshit like “I am working behind the scenes” and “Let’s talk in person (so no paper trail)” and generally just hope that I will forget.

What is scary is how close I was to sending that email. But it was therapeutic to write it anyway. I am very angry and disappointed with him. I thought he was a good guy, but the Koolaid is stronger; it’s in his veins now.

I am fantasizing of moving to Australia. There is a conference in Sydney this summer, I wonder if I should go. How excruciating is the trip? I have never been. My husband thinks I am nuts, but I say let’s collect several more passports! We are still young! Only wusses emigrate only once! Look at all the unexplored continents!

I spent some time with 2/3 of my brood at what can be called a pinnacle of consumerism doubling as an amusement park. What I have learned is that: my kids are spoiled and I am a wuss; vacations are expensive and tiring, especially when you are one adult with two kids; little kids have ridiculous amounts of energy which we need to learn how to harvest (Monsters Inc.?), because WTF how can they go-go-go and never seem to need to sleep? Yet, having kids run me ragged is exactly what I needed to  do to disconnect from work, and after a couple of days I feel exhausted but also strangely rested. They are ridiculously cute. And the hotel room is a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie. And my low-carb diet had to be suspended. And riding on roller coasters is awesome, and I forgot how much I liked it; the only thing I don’t like is waiting in line for a ride. But I am totally game for having my guts in my throat.



We have done a couple of rounds of edits, I have to do three more cartoons, and it’s nearing completion!

It will be called “Academaze,” and I have a great pseudonym! Here is the announcement on Annorlunda Books’ pages, and here is where you can sign up to be an advance reader and reviewer!