End of Semester

I don’t think I have ever had a harder semester than this spring.

Part of it is that I had a really large class with basically no help, which required a lot of face time (2.5 hrs of lecture, 1.5 hrs of discussion, 6 hours of office hours on regular weeks — always someone in the office, additional all-day office hours pre-midterm, and this is all not accounting for all the email, time spent on writing HW problems and solutions, and grading the exams). I like my students, but it was a lot of time interacting with people, which is temporarily uplifting but ultimately quite draining. In the evenings on days when I had a lecture plus discussion, I could only veg out or go to bed early.

But the biggest part of it was all the service that I had. I spent a ridiculous amount of time on an interdepartmental search which ultimately failed. I am resentful because we were made to Skype interview applicants like the place is on fire — on Christmas Eve, on Christmas Day, on New Year’s Eve; I could not have one goddamn week off where I wasn’t required to show up on campus. I also chaired a department committee that required a lot — A LOT — of writing; basically assembling award nominations for  colleagues for honors both internal and external, which requires soliciting letters, twisting arms, reading carefully the candidate’s papers and their colleagues’ letters, and ultimately writing lengthy nomination letters that are, of course, supposed to be detailed, specific, quoting external letter writers, and also dripping with adulatory epithets. If you have ever assembled a nomination for anyone, especially a successful one, you know that they are very labor-intensive. There were two additional members of the committee, but they ended up (nicely) blowing me off when I asked them to do things, citing personal demands and apologizing profusely… So I had to do all of the fuckin’ nominations. And there were many. So. Many.

Finally, we get to the institution-level committee that I wrote about a bit before. While all committees were laborious, this one also really challenged my interpersonal skills. Never before have I had to negotiate so much with some very unpleasant, stubborn people. There was a higher-up who revealed themselves in the most unflattering light. This interpersonal-interaction aspect of the committee and the frustrations around it spilled everywhere — they not only ate away at my time, but they killed my will to do technical work; they also left me irritable and distracted at home with my family. Honestly, I don’t know how full-time admins do these types of jobs. They must have ways to turn off the work drama to be able to return to their private lives. I understand doing an admin job for a few years when it’s your turn to chair a department or whatever…  But to crave this type of work? Such people must have personality types that are very, very different from mine.

This experience also makes me exceedingly grateful that I don’t work in a company. I can only imagine the potential for drama, frustration, and the resulting lack of technical progress that can arise from interpersonal friction on a team in a company.

***

I also did all the usual service that never goes away, such as reviewing proposals, attending panels, reviewing lots of papers, doing my duty as associate editor in a journal. Very recently, I ended up grudgingly scoring some 150 abstracts for a conference for which I am on the program committee. I was huffing and puffing and I finally asked myself why I accepted to be on it. I have been on the program committee for this conference a number of times, and I know why they keep asking me to do it — they cannot figure out which other woman to ask to do it. But I don’t really attend that conference, it’s not really my community. It’s often overseas, and it’s both costly to travel abroad and I have grown to hate travel, so don’t want to do overseas trips without a good reason.  So why did I accept this year? All it will be is a bullet on my annual report. Hardly worth it.

I am going to another conference overseas that is much more my core community, and where I have to give multiple talks by my group because none of the students who did the work can travel — one for health reasons, two for visa issues. Nuts.

***

Another aspect of fatigue comes from family life. Eldest and Middle Boy have a lot of activities. MB is quite the athlete, and he goes to swimming, basketball (season over, thankfully), and now soccer. That means lots of chauffeuring after work and on the weekends. Eldest swims daily and is very serious about it; he can drive, but doesn’t have his own car, so there are always logistical challenges with his early practices (honestly, everything is set up for stay-at-home moms or for kids driving themselves; as if people can routinely afford to maintain a whole fleet of cars).

But I do enjoy watching my kids partake in sports. Basketball is my favorite, but soccer gets me out into the sun for an hour on Saturdays, for which my bones will no doubt thank me.

***

All this thankless service work has pushed back the submission times of some of my group’s papers. My group members have been very patient, but couldn’t wait for the semester to end. They are now all over me to send off the papers, and I understand their impatience.

The problem is that I am sooo tired that I would really need to just not be responsible for anyone or anything right now. That’s obviously not going to happen with all my children and all my students, but it would be so wonderful if it could. Although, I wonder how resentful I would be to come back to the grind after, say, 2-3 weeks somewhere exotic where I am unencumbered? Plenty resentful, I bet.

I am eligible for a sabbatical the academic year after next (once every 7 years, 1 semester at full pay or a year at a bit over half pay).
This new sabbatical cannot come soon enough. I hope to spend at least some of it learning new things and honing my rusty German at an excellent overseas institution.

***

In other news, I have become a named (endowed) prof. I am happy for the honor and for the discretionary funds, but the impostor syndrome is stronger than ever. By now I know not to share my thoughts about this in real life, but I feel like I stole this honor from the more worthy candidates who were up against me. Phoebe from “Friends” illustrates how the impostor syndrome feels:

 

18 comments

  1. What are you going to do with the kids when you take your overseas sabatical?
    Will Eldest be in college by then? Will you take the other two with you and enroll them in school abroad?

    These are always interesting and challenging situations for academics on sabaticals with school-aged children, so I was wondering.

    Thanks for your writing!

  2. Congrats on the chair!!!! I was supposed to get one last year but they ended up giving it to someone with an outside offer instead. She’s leaving for a better job next year anyway.

    Can eldest carpool with a teammate? Won’t eliminate chauffeuring but would cut it down some.

  3. Congrats on the chair! That is awesome! Agree with N&M–carpools are life saving. You can set up a schedule that relieves the strain when you or Mr. Xyk have to travel. I continue to find it frustrating how much of life is set up with the expectation that an adult is available to do something during work hours for their school-aged kids.

    OneQuestion, I did my sabbatical abroad with kids, and I put them in the local public school (where they learned the local language). Mine were elementary school aged, and it was a great experience for them. Not sure what I would do with older kids, but probably something similar.

  4. Holy cow, congratulations on the endowed chair! That’s fabulous, and I’m very happy for you! Hope the impostor symptoms abate once you’ve been sitting in it for a while. 🙂

    That search timing is crap. How awful for you *and* the candidates. When I was applying for postdocs, I got an offer email at 9pm on New Year’s Eve (from Caltech, of course). My advisor said to me, “Well, that tells you something about what work expectations will be like if you take that job.” For many reasons I didn’t take that job, but I’ve always remembered what my advisor said about it. As a woman with kids applying for a faculty job, I’d think twice about a place that made me do a Skype interview on Christmas Day. Or, honestly, at this stage of my life I’d just be like “forget that, academia is not worth it” and decline the interview entirely. Sorry that you had to go through all that only to have the search fail!

  5. Hey,, congrats about the endowed chair gig!!!

    I hope you can take a week and do absolutely nothing before getting back into the usual summer grind.

  6. Thanks everyone! Re carpool, Eldest does go with some friends on occasion, but it’s not reliable (sometimes kids skip when they get too busy) and I don’t think he’s comfortable imposing on someone every day. He had one good buddy with whom he liked to carpool, but that kid graduated last year. So now it’s DH or me driving Eldest, or he takes my car and DH and I carpool.

    As for sabbatical, DH has to work, so we wouldn’t all go anywhere. My plan is to go for a few months, perhaps a couple of times, while DH stays with the kids. Eldest will start college and MB will start middle school that year! Time flies. I am looking into getting a fellowship to support the stay there, and many will allow you to distribute the stay over a few shorter ones, so I can go, say, twice for 3 months or some such thing. We’ll see, but it will be neither a staycation sabbatical nor a family move to another country.

  7. Congrats on the chair! Of course you absolutely deserve it!

    Your old Ride It Like You Own It essay comes to mind… maybe print out that cartoon and post it somewhere to remind yourself when you need it.

    I feel your pain on the kid chauffeuring. My flexible schedule makes it possible for my younger daughter to take art class. She loves art class. I always think I’m going to get some work done while she is in class, but more often than not what I really do is go into the grocery store in the same mall and pick up the things I forgot at the main shopping on the weekend. Seriously suboptimal.

  8. Congratulations! It is well earned – you are a success not only at research, but also at teaching and service. TBH I don’t think your Junior Colleague of the “only research matters” school would ever get an endowed chair… But what do I know.

  9. Thanks for replying re:sabatical and family organisation with kids, Xyk. Oh well, here my own unconscious bias got the best of me. Of course whenever I think of my colleagues on sabatical, it’s pretty much always dudes with stay-at-home wives (or wives that can easily drop their jobs) that follow them and organise family and kids lives for the semester or year abroad.

    But I guess when it’s the woman who’s the academic, and not married to another academic, the husband needs to work and stay put.

    Not criticising or anything, just acknowledging the fact that women do traditionally compromise much more for their spouses’ careers than the other way round.

    Maybe you’ll get to be more productive on those 3-month chunks away from family. But again, this makes me think of how many times my female academics have said, tongue-in-cheek, that what they’d really wish they had is “a wife to take care of everything at home while I do my science”. Something that many many male academics do have and take for granted.

    /end rant/

  10. Congrats on the chair! With all the humanity you show in this blog, I had almost forgotten that you are a research superstar by pretty much any objective standard.

  11. Congrats on the chair position!
    Reading through your post, one thing caught my eye. You mention how when you nominated faculty for awards you wrangled the letter writers and wrote several letters. My department has a similar “committee” but it just asks me to write my own letters and to give them names for letter writers and then write template letters for those folks. I was “nominated” for three awards this year, which had me writing essentially 12 variations of letters for myself. It was exhausting and even more frustrating when I didn’t get the awards. I was always told that this is common practice. What are your thoughts? Why didn’t you have the nominees make the case for themselves?

  12. Oh wow,I am late to the party, congratulations! And yes, now stop it — you are famous!

  13. Thanks everyone!

    engineering prof: Why didn’t you have the nominees make the case for themselves?

    The candidates provide us with the CV and some names of letter writers, and whatever other raw materials necessary, but our committee writes the letters — one person will draft and others will comment, and then the department chair is the one who officially signs in most cases (basically we are ghostwriting nominations in dept chair stead) or in a minority of cases the member of the awards cte who drafted the letter signs. I have certainly been asked by some candidates’ letter writers to provide a template for them, which is extra work for me and really very annoying, to be honest — I am just as busy as you are, if you are supposedly supportive of the candidate then write your own goddamn letter, you know?

    Why don’t we ask the candidate to draft own letters? Actually, I’d say writing good nomination letters is a bit of a skill, you need to know what to pitch and how for maximal effect; it’s actually very easy for these letters to fall completely flat, and you only realize that once you’ve seen some really strong and persuasive letters. To be honest, we don’t let just anyone be on this cte as it’s too important (we also have a way of training new faculty to become better at this task by having them shadow the cte without having to do work). We certainly ask the nominees if there’s something specific that they’d like emphasized in their nomination if it’s not obvious from the CV or any of the external letters, but the feel of the letter is much different when another person has written it than when the candidate has drafted it. People, when they draft for themselves, usually battle feelings of embarrassment when talking about themselves in the superlative, so the product is either too modest or just feels forced. You should always let someone else praise you.
    People who make other people (especially junior ones) draft their own letters piss me off. What a way to show appreciation and support… By not being willing to invest a few hours into writing a real letter.

  14. Wait, Skype interviews on Christmas? Seriously?

    I’m probably as un-balanced as you can get, as skeptical of all the “We must talk all family all the time in any conversation about workload” as you’ll ever find, so evil that when I die Satan will probably kick me out of hell, but even I would draw the line at Skype interviews on Christmas.

  15. Grumpy, your comment had gone to spam, I’m not sure why, there weren’t any links or anything in it. Sorry about that! Anyway, I have rescued it so it’s back up now. And thanks for the congrats!

  16. A huge congratulations on the endowed chair!!! That’s fantastic and well deserved (over due?). Sorry to hear about your year. I hope the start of summer is better.

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