Whimsical Wonky Workaholic Whispers, Wonders, and Whines

This has been a good year in terms of scientific output. Five papers already published or accepted this year; by the end of the summer,  anticipate the submission of three more. Several in the pipeline. In the immortal words  of a colleague who’s normally a big globetrotter but who was temporarily grounded due to offspring arrival, “I am getting so much work done now that I am not traveling! Who would have thought?”

*****

I completely, completely, forgot that I had committed to write a book chapter. It left no trace in my mind whatsoever. Am I getting absentminded or is it that I really, really don’t give 14/28 a $hit about said chapter?

In the words of a sage someone whom CathXYZ quoted once upon a time (and I am paraphrasing from memory, ’cause there is no way I am going to dig through her archives now):

“Book chapters and review papers are for people who don’t have data — never say yes!”

Words to live by!

Except when a friend asks you to contribute to their book, or to write a review paper for the special issue they are editing… Or when it’s also a good idea to get your grad student who will graduate in 2 years to take this time to write a good literature survey, which will be the chapter/review paper’s introduction and double as 21/28 of the intro to their eventual dissertation.

*****

I pulled down the last three posts, one personal about my mom coming to visit (ugh — that’s not going badly, btw, after the initial rough start) and two about the woes with a graduate student about to defend his PhD (ugh squared — also mostly abated).

I pulled them down because I was uncomfortable putting them up in the first place, and I am not even sure why I was so uncomfortable. These are the posts I wanted to write (as in, I felt the urge to write, which really is how the best posts are written — they need to come out), but they felt wrong to write, like they aren’t mine to share, even though they are and even though no one else who’s involved has been identified.

Anyway, I have been thinking about what we can and cannot discuss on an anonymous blog. I have been called out in the past on the fact that it’s uncool to discuss the anecdotes from my professorial life, especially when they involve underlings, such as students, and that I was pretty awful for writing what I did. I don’t  think I am particularly awful (does anyone?), so when someone implies that I am, it makes me think hard about my potential awfulness.

Obviously, I should not do or say anything that would actually hurt anyone in real life. What’s the definition of hurt? Obviously, I should not say anything that would actually hurt, for instance, the employment prospects of anyone I know, which I am definitely not doing. But is it necessary or even possible to aim for not even accidentally hurting the feelings of anyone who might maybe potentially recognize themselves in the anecdotes?

For example, I sometimes read about mommy wars [stay-at-home moms (SAHMs) vs work-outside-of-home moms (WOHMs) with work-at-home moms (WAHMs) somewhere in between and siding with either, but on average more often with SAHMs]. I have very strong feeling about the issue, being that I am an ambitious WOHM  who likes to work and is not just doing it to make ends meet (which seems to be the patriarchally approved reason for a mom to work). Let me tell you, us WOHMs get a lot of crap from other moms, much more so than the other way around, as well as from many female and male non-moms. It’s crap along the lines of “I could never leave my babies with strangers, it would break my heart (hint: WOHMs are cold and heartless)” or “Why even have children when you are going to have them raised by strangers” (hint: WOHMs are cold and heartless, also selfish) and “Everybody knows that it’s best for the kids if one parent stays at home with them” (hint: WOHMs are cold and heartless, also selfish, and just plain evil incarnate to do what everybody knows is not the best for babies). I have a strong opinion on the whole issue, but the fact that all the many SAHMs and some WAHMs write what they write, I can roll my eyes at what they write, but I can’t change what they think and I can’t affect what they write. All I can do is to not read it if I don’t like it, and then go about my business. And I can hope that anyone who has a hand in giving me a raise or an award or any accolade doesn’t have a wife who’s a SAHM and thus discriminates against me for not being a real woman or a real mom or whatever.

But, as cathartic as writing the above paragraph has been (I stumbled across a mommy-warish piece by accident the other day), to me making blanket statements about all WOHMs or all SAHMs or whatever seems actually worse than sharing one’s own anonymized anecdotes involving specific people. First of all, I participated in the events of my anecdotes, so they are actually mine to share, as long as I am not actually doing harm to anyone involved by sharing them. Is there harm in sharing an anecdote that happened between me (whom you don’t know) and an unspecified student or colleague (whom you also don’t know)? Is it invariably tacky or awful or bad along some other direction to write about being annoyed by my student simply because they are my student? We are talking about people over the age of 18 in what is a master/apprentice relationship and everyone is anonymous.

Some people say that these anecdotes should not be shared because then other students may think they are about them and feel bad. Well, I don’t think that there is any guarantee in life, and especially on the web, against ever being made to feel bad by someone random writing about someone else equally random.

On the other hand, there is the concern that the people actually involved in the anecdotes would find them, and recognize themselves, and then again be made to feel bad. I suppose that’s possible, but… I have found my own experiences from different facets of my life mirrored so often in the writings of various people on the web, that it’s safe to say that none of us are as special as we think we are and all our experiences are incredibly common or at least not unusual. I would say that the fact that someone might recognize themselves in someone’s writing is actually a reason for said piece of writing to exist. Second, I am pretty open with the members of my group. If there is a problem, something I don’t like, they know about it. The language I use in person vs here on the web is different, but if I am annoyed enough to bring up something here, I guarantee that I have brought it up with the student, too, as per my principle that I try not to let things fester when the problem is with someone I care about or care about continuing to have a professional relationship with. If I have a problem and I don’t address it, that usually means: a) it’s really minor and I can just get over it,  or b) it’s not minor but I have other things on my plate, so I don’t have the energy to deal with it now, or c) I am in the process of checking out from my relationship with that person, i.e., I have decided I no longer care to invest emotional energy in them or in our joint work; basically they are on their way to my “I don’t care” list.

And the stuff I write about is largely the stuff of annoyance, mismatched expectation, and miscommunication. I don’t think anything I write about really warrants a trigger warning.

But let me digress even further!

There is a junior colleague with whom I have been interacting a lot, and I am fascinated by how certain he is of everything he does. He’s probably no more than 30, and he’s already much more confident than I will ever be. As in, I could get 2 Nobel Prizes, and I still would probably not be as confident as this colleague is now. It must be awesome to never have doubts about anything you want to do or plan to do; you want to do something, you think it’s a good idea, you never doubt that it’s a good idea or that someone may object or that you might upset/hurt someone, you just do it. Of course, there is always the option that I am just really stupid and come up with only stupid ideas, and he is really brilliant and only comes up with brilliant ideas, so of course he never has doubts and I always do, as I should. (I can name at least five people who would say the former statement is undoubtedly correct.) Anyway, I don’t want to discuss male vs female upbringing or biology (apparently, some transmen report considerably higher decisiveness on all sorts of issues after starting testosterone).

My junior colleague, who is decidedly less experienced when it comes to advising students, has no doubt that it’s totally okay for us to bitch and moan about our students to one another, if that releases the pressure and enables us to be more patient with the students in person. By extension, I can release the tension here where it doesn’t hurt the students (such as in last weekend’s post about my PhD student acting jerky) in order to release the pressure, which enables me to produce calm and expletive-free email correspondence suitable for transmission via the university server.

But I know people who would come to tell me that the fact I get annoyed means something is wrong with me as advisor, because good advisors are all chips of the ol’ Zen Buddhism block and never get upset, or don’t get upset enough to have to bitch on the web. And there are others who would come to tell me why I care what anyone else thinks and so on… Aaaargh!

What’s the point of all this rambling?

I guess this is it: I fail to see why it is awful when I discuss my own thoughts and feelings about the interactions I have with my colleagues and collaborators, some of whom are my graduate students, and I do so without naming anyone. What exactly is bad and damaging about it?

Is it that I make it seem like professors actually are human beings and get annoyed and angry and sad and worried and anxious? I make it seem like professors don’t always know what they are doing in personnel matters and aren’t always 100% rational in the interactions? Does that hurt advisor authority in the abstract, erode student confidence in the fearless lab leaders?

Is it that I make a generic graduate student feel like their own advisor is not an infallible deity who has the student’s best interest at heart 100% of the time? Is it that I make a generic graduate student feel bad about making mistakes or just behaving in ways they never knew were objectionable?

Is it that my actual student might hypothetically come across these written accounts and recognize themselves and feel bad?

Is it that grad students are like our children and we are supposed to protect and cherish and never think a bad thought or say/write a bad thing about them? (Which is weird, because there are plenty of sites where people complain about their own flesh and blood and how annoying the kids can be.)

Grad students, do you feel scarred when I complain about the woes with my grad students or do you find it useful/helpful on some level? Other profs, do you think these posts resonate or help, or do you think “Here comes the whaaaambulance again… Why does anyone let this idiot advise grad students again?” 

The thing is I feel vaguely uncomfortable about writing online as I have, and I can’t decide why it is.

There are many things I used to write about that I feel like I should not have written about. With more blogging, I have become less bold. Maybe that’s inescapable? Maybe I am just ridiculously thin-skinned? Maybe I am just getting old?

I am a fairly conservative web presence (e.g., I am not on “chirper” or similar). Engagements with social media only ever make me want to say less about everything, rather than more. It seems like every word is too much, too revelatory, too fraught with the possibility to result in some blowup somewhere and drain the limited energy that I can afford to spend on whimsy.

Anyway, this post was apropos nothing in particular. Mostly, due to all the hullabaloo regarding Da Book, I started feeling again exceedingly “out there,” too much into people’s faces, too present online (even though I really am not). Suddenly, meaningful posts with emotion and related to stuff that actually happens and matters to me were too personal and too inappropriate and just… too everything.

Dear readers, please bear with me posting stuff and then pulling it down a couple of days later, as my sense of online propriety recalibrates itself and gets me to a place where my need to write is balanced with my level of comfort with my writing actually being out there in the world.

14 comments

  1. I support your posting about underlings! I’m a new postdoc and am constantly trying to figure out how to be. It helps me to read about what annoys faculty mentors (or what makes them happy). That said, if my mentor were writing an anonymous blog and I happened upon it and saw that she was writing about me, that’d be pretty devastating. But, I’m weird.

  2. I think as long as you keep everything vague and/or change details so that the student is not identifiable to an outsider, it’s not hurting anyone.

    As a grad student, I find it useful to hear the perspective from the other side. I will admit I am currently so exasperated by my advisor’s (what I feel are) unreasonable demands that it’s hard for me not to snap and speak to her as your grad student did to you. From what you have posted about your advising style, you seem way more sane than my own advisor, but it’s still relevant. It’s much easier to be professional when I give her the benefit of the doubt.

  3. I love the blog and generally find the comments about students really helpful (unfortunately realizing that some my actions in the run up to my thesis defense were probably not so welcome…) As a young faculty member, stories about other faculty members are quite helpful in deciphering the actions of my colleagues.

    I read the blog on an RSS feed so I would never notice anything had changed if you deleted the whole thing as you went.

    I also imagine that the tactic of having entries disappear is pretty effective. Regular readers will see and enjoy them, but if your identity suddenly becomes public or people can piece together enough to be suspicious anything on the more sensitive side will probably not be around.

  4. The biggest risk, as others have pointed out, is sudden loss of anonymity. I started out my blog semi-anonymous, but have since switched over to having my name explicitly linked with my blog. I’ve tried throughout to avoid causing hard feelings, but I know that at least once I referred to incidents in class (without names) that were identifiable to the students in the class.

  5. I enjoy your blog a lot, and I find many of your posts resonate with me. I like hearing about other people’s experiences and how they handled various professional and personal situations, or I wouldn’t read blogs! It is helpful to me to see the usually hidden musings of other people–I feel a solidarity through mutual experience, even though I don’t know the blogger and the blogger doesn’t know me. I find your blog particularly insightful, as we are both female profs in physical science.

    We started online at about the same time, and I, like you, am a social media luddite. I don’t use many of the usual platforms other than my pseudonymous blog, as I am uncomfortable with oversharing (and also why give out my personal info for free–let the lord of the Internet work for it! If you can’t figure out what the online company is selling, it is selling you). I also struggle with how much to say, and what topics to post on.

    On my own blog, I share anecdotes from my professional life. Some of my colleagues and students may recognize themselves if they knew about the blog, but I don’t post anything I would mind someone else knowing (though I do post plenty of things I have no plans to make public). My students know I am an imperfect human being with thoughts and feelings, so it would not be a shock to them that I can get annoyed, angry, or frustrated with them.

    When I decided to come back after my break, I knew that I was blogging for me, and not for anyone else. So do what you like with your blog–it is mostly for you after all, and the rest of us are here because we enjoy what you choose to share with us for the time period you choose to share it in.

  6. I really enjoy reading your posts about your students, and they have helped me to understand some of the dynamics in my own lab. But that said, I think it is hard for us faculty to predict how our students will react to our comments and opinions of them. There were several times when I was a grad student that my otherwise excellent advisor made offhand comments that hurt me to my core. Most were harmless enough, and I was overly sensitive, but they still hurt (and to be honest, some still sting even though it was ages ago). As far as I know, he never opened up and really ranted about me, even though I gave him plenty to rant about. And I know that I have said what I thought were well-meaning things to my own students that they found hurtful. Students and faculty are operating in different parallel universes.

    So I can imagine that at some point in the future, if you lose anonymity, your former students may sift through your old blog posts and recognize themselves and be very hurt. Or worry that someone else will recognize them. Or wonder about the letters you wrote for them…if that’s why they didn’t get a better job, etc.

    If you discovered that your advisor had posted anonymous rants about you, what would you do? Would you look? Would you be hurt? It would drive me nuts, even though I know I was often a pain in the ass and am still far too thin-skinned.

  7. I love your blogging and am so happy to read about the ups and downs of everything, including advising. I’m not comfortable sharing too many details with my colleagues about my advisorial feelings, although I have asked for advice about specific situations. They’re generally not coming to me with a lot of stories, at least not yet.

    I don’t understand the risks of your blogging like this, really. It would be unforgivable if a trainee discovered new complaints and criticisms through this blog, but you say you are direct with them, so I don’t see the problem. Indeed, I would think it bizarrely entitled if they expected you somehow not to be moved by standing concerns in close working relationships. Sorting through criticisms is a central part of science, not to mention adulthood.

  8. As a graduate student, I find it useful in the sense that it makes my own mentor seem more human. It makes me think about how she feels about me, and makes me wonder if she gets annoyed/worried/excited about our meetings or my data. And I think that in a way it’s good to see that teamwork can be hard. The mentor-mentee relationship is sacred and it will ultimately decide the mentee’s fate. Maybe that was a bit dramatic, but I am majorly a mentee now so I am a bit biased. If it’s anonymous and genuinely not aimed towards harming anyone, then I don’t see anything wrong with it. But if it’s anonymous, not intentionally harmful, but doesn’t sit right with you, then for sure don’t write about it. At the end of the day your blog, anonymous or not, should be an honest reflection and documentation of you, not us (the readers). So you should decide what stays up and what doesn’t. Again, my views may change in the next few years, if not next few days.

  9. Congrats on the papers! I am in awe!

    I find your posts about your students very interesting and strangely comforting. I had a grad student leave my lab this year, which was very hard, but, as I realize now, ultimately for the better. (As my husband rightly predicted.) Your posts help me think about and make peace with my own mentoring experiences. So: Thanks! And: You always have the option to delete posts later.

  10. Perhaps this Anne Lamott quote will help:
    “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

    Anyway, my own rule is I don’t blog anything I wouldn’t be happy to have read by my Mom (who reads my blog…) or my colleagues (who don’t, as far as I know).

    I’ve skirted the line on the second one when discussing some women in science issues, particularly in the lead up to my career change, but I decided that while I’d probably rather NOT have a discussion about those posts with my colleagues, I stand by what I wrote and would be OK if they read them. And writing them really helped me to process what happened.

    So, maybe my rule is: I will only post things if I could live with the consequences if they became non-anonymous. But then, my blog has always been only somewhat anonymous, as in anyone who knows me in real life and stumbles across the blog would recognize me immediately. I’m hiding my identity (and that of my kids) from the search engines, not people.

  11. Your posts resonate and help (me) on so many levels. Otherwise I (and I suspect others as well) won’t be looking for your posts over and over again. Besides, they are authentic, and this in itself is hard to find around. I am rather grateful for your ramblings, both the personal ones and especially those about the academic life, colleagues and students alike. I might like your posts so much because I am or feel like being of the same type, thirsty for the real struggle, and not terribly polite or politically correct, although, as you point out, living among those gentle and well behaved souls rubs off, and one becomes more and more aware of other sides of the medals. I wish your recalibration would not change much your style or your out-there-ness, in the face of everybody. I kinda love it when I don’t agree with (some of) your opinions. Better balancing could be desirable, by way too many, but it might also get more boring. my 2c (not even american currency).

  12. I’m a current grad student. I think your musings (and occasional complaints) about grad students are the best parts of this blog! It is truly fascinating to me to get a glimpse of what faculty are secretly thinking about us, and I’m sure many others who read your blog feel the same way.

  13. One thing you didn’t mention was tenure and academic freedom. Wasn’t there some pseudonymous science blogger back in the heyday (2007-2010) who gotten fired from an industry job when her bosses found her blog?

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