Month: December 2017

2017 in Review: Hindsight, Resolutions, Stats, and Prizes!

This has been a good year. I have been battling with what’s probably a midlife crisis, trying to find ways to scratch an amorphous itch… To feed the hunger for something new and meaningful.

WORK

Work has been OK, but it’s definitely been far less fulfilling than in the past. I think boredom inevitably settles in, but it’s hard to indulge the desire to do really new things when a prerequisite for doing new things is having the funding to do them, and you can only get the funding if you have a track record of doing very similar things… Maybe it’s OK to just be bored for a while, keep doing what I’m doing until I’ve figured out a way, through learning new things on my own (without money for students) or new collaborations, to reignite the spark.

I’ve written some cool new grants this year, had one awarded. Next year, my bread-and-butter project is up for renewal, but I’m confident I have a very solid plan to propose. I graduated two PhD students, taught many undergrads, and generally had fun with the younglings.

I received a cool professorship that comes with some money, which has been a nice recognition. I was really touched by how many of my colleagues showed up for my professorship award ceremony.

I’ve come out of some ridiculously time-consuming service and am still on the mend.

Work goals:

I’ve decided it’s OK to not go full throttle for a while. I need to find ways to genuinely recharge my science batteries.

In the meantime, I will work on renewing funds, holding the fort for existing projects, pushing the students along. Maybe I’m not raging fire, but I can pull off smoldering fire (hehe, Hulk v. Thor joke), which should be enough for a while.

Continuing to say ‘no’ to stuff that’s not glaringly obviously (ugh, two adverbs, ugh) useful for my career goals.

I’ve realized that I am the most vulnerable to saying ‘yes’ to stuff I don’t want to do after I’ve just said ‘no’ and am both drowning in guild and feeling far too proud of myself for persevering. That’s how I refused one panel attendance only to agree to another a mere week later. Ugh. I have to work on this. I wish people wouldn’t constantly ask me for stuff; my capacity to say ‘no’ is not limitless — each ‘no’ requires intellectual effort to counter lifelong programming that everyone else’s needs are more important than mine, that being nice and pleasing is paramount.

So, for New Year, I wish for everyone to just stop the fuck asking me for stuff so I don’t have to waste my intellectual and health units on battling myself into saying ‘no’ (or saying ‘yes’ and then losing precious time and said intellectual and health units to do the stuff I don’t want to do). I want everyone to be so scared of me so as not to ask me for anything ever again. Or at least until I’m done with the proposal renewal in March.

FAMILY

Family life has been OK. We’ve taken a few shorter trips together this year.

DH and I have been on some nice dates; we like live comedy shows, rock concerts, and movies, and we’ve seen some of each. It’s nice to have Eldest to babysit.

Eldest is a senior in high-school and the college application stuff has been far less stressful (on me) than what other parents report. He applied to two schools, to both early, and he got into the science programs at both. We’re waiting for his music school auditions this January, and then we’ll see where he goes. I’ve enjoyed road trips with Eldest before he achieved vehicular mobility and I will miss driving all around the state for events… We got him a used car this summer, and he’s been enjoying it. He has a job at Subway which pays for his gas and provides him with spending money. He’s a great kid and I think we’ve done a good job of not ruining him.

Middle Boy is finishing 5th grade and he’s a tough nut. Very bright, but a bit lazy and very stubborn. He’s a great athlete and craves sports with lots of physical contact with the opponents. He is very tall and excels at basketball; he really wants to play football but we won’t let him (flag football is fine). His friends are VERY important to him and he is the alpha male among his peers; we worry about the social aspect being too much of a distraction going forward. Girls are also becoming VERY important. MB starting middle school next year is the main reason I won’t be taking a sabbatical, as I don’t want to be away as he gets hit with big waves of puberty hormones and all the social drama that goes with it. He’s a sweet and passionate kid with an endless desire for the new and different (kind of like his pain-in-the-a$$ mother) and he’s always had a mind of his own; he’ll do great in life if he doesn’t end up making some awful choices early on. DH and I adore him, but are bracing ourselves; the next couple of years will be challenging.

Smurf is the cutest kid on the planet. He’s a first-grader, among the youngest in the class (late June birthday) but he’s very bright and he’s well above average in both math and reading. He’s temperamentally mellow and sweet, more like Eldest than MB. Smurf really likes school, but also friends, movies, games, outdoors, just about everything. He’s easy-going, chatty, cuddly, curious, and just such a joy.

I’m not really in contact with my primary family but I think they’re doing well. My baby sister turned 40 and I saw the pics from the celebration. My parents are getting older and that brings closer some concerns that I am so far pretending don’t exist. I live so far away that it’s hard for me to do anything but send money when needed. I don’t have the emotional bandwidth for more.

Family goals:

More meaningful time with Eldest before he leaves, more time as a family. More one-on-one time with MB.

I don’t give DH enough credit on the blog, but he’s the one who has contributed the sweetness and calm genes to our offspring (I am solely responsible for all the pain-in-the-ass bits of DNA that any of them carry) and he’s instrumental in keeping me level-headed and away from catastrophizing, which I am prone to do. I want us to go to more standup comedy and generally just have grownup fun, especially before we lose our built-in babysitter, the college-bound Eldest.

EXTRACURRICULARS

I got back to kickboxing. I’ve been doing it since June, 5x a week most of summer and fall, then down to 3x this winter. When it’s no longer so goddamn dark in the morning at 4:30 when I need to get up for it, I hope to go back to 5x a week. For now, I will consider keeping continuity a win.

I’ve started writing short fiction and it’s been going well. I started submitting in September, and I’ve had 17 flash pieces published in 2017: 10 micros (up to 100 words) and 7 longer flash-fiction pieces (flash is up to 1000 words). Going into 2018, I already have 5 longer pieces slated to appear (4 long flash pieces and a short story, ~1500 words). Of the 2018 stuff already accepted, there is one great satirical piece and two more that have a lot of humor in them.

I’m already better at writing than when I started, and I think considerably so; much of it is thanks to volunteering at a magazine that promises personalized feedback, so every time I reject I have to articulate what didn’t work and how to make it better. I am deeply allergic to schmaltz and cannot stomach (or write) moody pieces where cloudy skies are a metaphor for inner turmoil and whatnot. These just irritate me to no end. I also really hate sloppiness in writing, like when an author flails random noninteracting metaphors and calls it abstract (also resists editorial pleas to tie up those loose ends — experiences as an editor are a whole different can of worms). Anyway, “abstract” as a synonym for “I threw some imagery out there without bothering to rewrite for some coherence or plot or character or anything really”; I see a lot of that and say nope to the never. I am drawn to the ridiculous and to spare prose with judicious use of incisive lines and strong, well-placed literary devices. I am working on improving my own style, getting the writing to where I feel it needs to go, and learning which zines appreciate what I have to offer.

I’ve tried a few competitions and I don’t think I am good at those. Given a prompt word or phrase or other constraints of the competition, I’m the person who gets inspired to write a fantasy piece when everyone else writes realism, or I will eschew the obvious route toward a sci-fi piece and write lab lit instead. Then I read the winning pieces: 20% of the time they are phenomenal and I wish I could write like that; 60% of the time I don’t particularly care for them one way or another; the final 20% of the time they are irritating plotless blobs of freefloating imagery that I would turn away if I got them as an editor.

Writing goals:

Submitting some speculative fiction to paying markets (so far most has been literary fiction, even if some had speculative-fiction elements). If I were to get a speculative fiction publication in a professional market (means it pays 6 cents or more per word), not because of money but because it would qualify for eventual membership in SFWA, I would consider it a great success this year; however, I am not sure I am at that level yet.

Writing more satire and getting it into ever better zines. I think I’m actually quite good at writing humor (certainly better than writing about goddamn stormy skies as a metaphor for constipation) and at finding humor everywhere, even in (or particularly in) the sad, the heavy, and the tragic.

Making peace with the fact that I will never be a superstar fiction writer. Not that I really want it, to be honest, it’s just that my inner ambition is always beneath the surface, ready to pounce, even when emotionally I don’t really want things and intellectually I know that I likely don’t have the chops, and ultimately who cares anyway since this is a goddamn hobby.

In literary fiction, I want to find a way to be as weird, insightful, and genuinely emotional as I know I can be. Also, get into a few select markets I like.

I want to toughen my hide into that of the thickest walruslike blubber so as not to feel the sting of rejection at all.

And just keep writing. (Btw, if you are interested in reading my fiction, send me an email and I will give you the coordinates.)

BLOGGING

I will answer the as -yet-unanswered queries from November and leave that post up for people to add requests.

I would like to somehow re-ignite the dialogue in this space, but I know blogging is no longer as fashionable as it used to be, and much of the activity has moved to Facebook and Twitter. Still, I’m here, and there will be a delurking post coming up early in January, as every year.

I have no intention of leaving this place; it’s been a cherished outlet for my academic wisdom and/or angst for many a moon. I can’t imagine ever running out of things to say (although I do sometimes repeat myself), so I’m not going anywhere.

Stats

Finally, here are a few stats and some prizes!

About 181, 000 views, 44,000 visitors, and over 1,000 comments!

Here are the most popular posts:

Top referrers — thank you!

As for top commenters, that’s a bit tougher to extract now that WordPress doesn’t do the end-of-year summaries for us, but this is close enough (I did a manual count for the top commenters and the actual comment numbers in the year are a bit higher than what’s given below, but not by much). Thanks everyone for reading and commenting, and the top three commenters — lyra211, gasstationwithoutpumps, & Prodigal Academic — will be getting some Amazon gift cards via email!

 

Happy New Year everyone!

‘Tis the Season

Happy holidays to all!

I am sooooo enjoying this winter break, it feels decadent.

We aren’t doing much: chilling out, watching movies, reading, playing with electronics, cuddling, having friends over. Some of us are writing and editing stories. All of us repeat how glad we are that we don’t have to go to school or work tomorrow. The kids are old enough that it’s pure fun and relaxation and very little hassle for everyone to be cooped up together for days.

On Saturday, I drove all day. I took Eldest to a neighboring state to meet a prospective teacher at the music school. Eldest applied to two universities—both big state schools: the one where I teach (no, sadly, no tuition relief whatsoever for employees) and a comparable one in a neighboring state—and was accepted to both. He wants to major in molecular biology and was admitted to the appropriate colleges in the two schools, but as his second major (or perhaps a minor) he wants music, and the auditions for music schools aren’t till January. It’s also recommended that the students have an hour-long lesson with the person who would be their likely teacher (for many instruments, there’s only one), to see how they would gel if they were to work together. Thus far, Eldest has been dead-set on staying here, but he seemed to have really clicked with the music teacher out of state whereas the local guy seemed grumpy, so we’ll see. Auditions are in a month. I will have another road trip with Eldest for that right before the new semester starts.

Christmas Eve was uneventful. I have no idea what we did. I know I wrapped the presents with the speed and stealth becoming of a true consumerist superhero.

On Monday (yesterday, the Christmas Day), DH and I celebrated 18 years of marriage! Happy anniversary, DH! We were married on Christmas Day in 1999, and while no one ever forgets the date, we always have a hell of a time going out to celebrate because everything is closed. This time around, we had a proper dinner-and-a-movie date (Eldest babysat). We saw The Shape of Water, which is beautiful and satisfying on so many levels.

Today, I took all of my offspring to see Jumanji, which I also enjoyed. It’s really funny and just great stupid fun. It was well done—sharp comedic writing, without sluggish excess, and with strong performances by everyone involved. Jack Black and Kevin Hart predictably killed it, but The Rock definitely held his own (smolder LOL). Two of Middle Boy’s friends also went with one of the moms, and these kids later joined us for a playdate. Finally, Smurf also had a playdate, so I had six boys total at my house today, which was fun. I love impromptu little parties. At one point, all five who were not Eldest were lying spread out on the floor and on the steps in a doggy pile, if the dogs were actually made out of very relaxed slime that’s on winter break.

I can’t remember the last time I so thoroughly enjoyed a vacation.

Topical Drift

The way science is funded in the US — in short, highly uncertain federal grants — prevents the scientists from doing their best work, stifles creativity, contributes to burnout in more ways than one, and drags the whole enterprise down.

What struck me recently is how bored I am with much of my work. If someone gave me the money to fund maybe 3-4 students over the next five years (with a student, loaded, costing about $60k/year, that would be $1.2M for 4 students — so not anyone’s pocket change) and do whatever I wanted to do, I would have plenty of stuff to work on. There are things I want to learn and I would go into one of the fields that are quite far from my bread-and-butter one.

But to do the same on my own, raise the above $1.2M to do something completely new in a new field, is impossible. To be even competitive for this much money in a new field, one that is so far away from what I do that my current students or my PhD advisor likely wouldn’t be able to read my papers, would require such a drastic shift that it would likely mean a period with little or no funding, and I might never recover. I have certainly seen that — someone runs out of money, owing to bad luck or moving into a new field, and they are dead in the water. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone recover in terms of funding after a shift as great as what I envision and would love to make.

A senior colleague, years ago and at his tenure time, said he was done with his most productive line of work and ready for something else. But the sabbatical came and went, the change never happened, and the colleague is now (I fear irreversibly) switching to administration. His enthusiasm for his work must have waned, and the money certainly dried up. But if he’d been able to really switch gears, not with pittance institutional funds that cover 1 RA for 1 year but some actual resources, we would still have him in the game, somewhere, contributing with his brilliant mind.

So what do you do? Drift into new topics at a glacial pace. Essentially hold on to the topics you are done with, and would really like never to see again, and slooooowly introduce more and more topics that are more and more aligned with what you want to do… By the time you’ve finally transitioned into what you wanted to work on to begin with, you are bored with that and it’s time for the drift dance to take place yet again.

Improving the World, One ‘Not’ at a Time

As it turns out—at least for a pain in the a$$ such as myself—not doing things brings about more benefits to everyone involved than actually doing things.

  • Not firing off most composed tweets because people on the web don’t need to be subject to my every thought; most of my thoughts, for that matter.
  • Not firing off 50% of composed emails because people in meat space don’t need to be subject to my every thought; most of my thoughts, for that matter.
  • Not sending an email to a collaborator in which I tell him to clean up after his student. 

    We are working on a manuscript. The collaborator and his student drafted it, then sent it around for comments. They said the paper was ready to go and gave everyone a week to respond. The paper is meant for a prestigious journal that takes letter (short) papers. Unfortunately, this ready-to-go paper looks like a headless chicken—freaky and hilarious, as it runs around aimlessly, hitting points at random. The writing is surprisingly bad (the colleague and the students are both American). Someone’s gonna break a neck after tripping on one of the many dangling participles. Overall, the paper is far, far from submittable.

    I sent in my extensive comments and the student is incorporating them. But that’s not enough. This is the student’s first paper and I don’t think he can do this by himself. He needs to be taught how to write a short manuscript for a prestigious journal. I wish my collaborator were more hands-on here. And maybe he will be, eventually. I wrote an email asking the collaborator to get more involved in the writing because so much is missing; that the student is too junior to do this on his own… And then deleted the email. I wouldn’t appreciate receiving such an email, in which someone’s telling me how to run my group, so I decided not to be an obnoxious prick for once, and keep my mouth shut.

  • Not accepting to sit on an NSF panel (I was in a bit of an existential crisis refusing this one, but last year it was so much work and the then-current program manager was behaving shittily, so I said never again).
  • Not accepting anything to review over the past month.
  • Not accepting to sit on student defenses unless I am already familiar with the work.
  • Not accepting to write any more lukewarm form letters of recommendation for random undergraduates.

Things I wish I could just not do, but have to do. Not doing them would make me happy, but the other people involved might feel differently.

  • Review two PhD dissertations (for my own graduate students).
  • Write three letters of recommendation (for my own group members).
  • Respond to a major revision request for a paper that bores the hell out of me. They took twice as long to send us the referee reports, right before the holidays, and of course they now want major revisions immediately. Well, no. FU. I asked for an extension until the end of January.
  • Edit and submit a paper from my group with a former student who left in the spring. (I am bored with that material, too.)
  • Submit yet another proposal on an accelerated timeline because the staff member who is  supposed to click ‘submit’ is leaving for the holidays early.

Basically, I want to not do anything that’s not reading books or watching TV, and maybe working on some fiction.  I really hope that, for once, I won’t have to work between Xmas and New Year.

I need a vacation. A long one…but a paid one. And no one is allowed to come with me, except for some books, a laptop, and maybe a few Costco-sized bottles of Bailey’s.

Fifth-Grade Basketball as a Metaphor for Science, Life, and Anything Else You Can Think of

I love watching my kids take part in various athletic competitions. For Eldest, it’s been swimming; for Middle Boy, it’s been flag football, soccer one season and a couple of years of lackluster swimming, but his main sport is basketball. He’s really good at it and passionate about the game. I’m that parent who yells supportive and possibly embarrassing stuff from the sidelines (I don’t care; all grace and self-consciousness evaporated once I started having children). It’s interesting to see how much these kids want to win, how they compete with all they’ve got, and how much they hustle. None of them have hit puberty yet, so I can only imagine how the games are going to look once all the testosterone kicks in…

Middle Boy is now in fifth grade and the YMCA basketball season is in full swing. He loves this year’s team, which is mostly composed of his friends from school. (If you felt the need to say “comprised by” here, I hate you with the burning passion of a thousand suns and I will never be your friend, for the banishment of the misuse of ‘comprise’ is  among the grammar hills I am willing to die on.) There are a couple of kids not from MB’s school, one of whom is excellent and has had the possession of the ball 75% of the time in the first two games; the team lost both of those games. Honestly, I thought the team was not very good, as there were no plays, just that one kid trying to do his own thing and sometimes succeeding, sometimes not.

That excellent external kid missed the last two games, and the team blossomed. It was amazing to watch. Suddenly, they moved the ball, made passes, organized offense, every single one of the players got to touch the ball, and nearly everyone scored at least once. The kids played beautifully and won these last two games, all with their nominally best player absent. We finally saw that the team had five more great people, who could both hold their own and mesh well together.

MB tells me they are joking that they should ‘fire’ that kid who’s their best player. The kid is selfish with the ball, not a team player (focused on scoring himself and blowing far too many good chances that could have resulted in scoring if a play had been executed), and overall just not an asset to the team, or not as great of an asset as everyone had thought at the outset. We’ll see what the coach does when the kid comes back.

But this is also a metaphor for doing science and life in general.

I am not sure that there is any level of excellence in science or in any other endeavor that justifies extreme selfishness. Or rudeness, or being otherwise toxic to other people. We in science, just like people in ‘the real world,’ tend to forgive a lot to people whom we perceive as brilliant, as someone who’d be hard to replace.

We shouldn’t. Nobody is irreplaceable.

Removal of assholes is always a benefit.

Tolerance of assholes brings everyone down.

One’s value is not measured when that person is in vacuum, not interacting with anyone else. One’s value to any enterprise and the society at large comes in part from that individual’s capabilities, but at least as much, if not more, from how they gel with the capabilities of others.

Any team sport will show the same dynamics: if the team has good chemistry, they become much more than the sum of individuals’ abilities. Otherwise, they are not a team, and they will be overrun by the opponents who are one.

Thursday Tidbits

  • Yes, I am guilty: I love alliteration, in moderation. (Also, rhymes, especially when they’re accidental.) That’s because deep inside the body of this middle-aged woman hides a 10-year-old boy who loves stupid puns, profanity, potty humor, and alliteration—I love them all.
  • We hear all sorts of arguments for diversity. To me, one of the best comes from running a diverse (in terms of gender and country of origin) research group. It’s amazing to see how students become friends, with whom they gel and who gets them. Few things underscore our shared humanity better than finding a kindred spirit who grew up half the way across the world, yet has the same sense of humor, temperament, and outlook on what matters in life as you.
  • Things I need to do and will do, but really don’t want to do because I would much rather waste time online: proofread dissertations of two graduating students; write letters of recommendation for two graduating students; grade a bazillion HW assignments that I neglected because I hadn’t felt like doing them for a long time; prepare a test to give tomorrow; decide what to do on 3-5 meh stories that I’ve been sitting on for a while as editor…

Tuesday Tirade

To the faculty on the tenure track at research institutions (and likely elsewhere, but the weight of research and letters vs other aspects may be different): Here are  some things you absolutely must do, and maybe you think they are wrong and stupid but you must do them, and I am writing about this because a case of someone who hasn’t done them is very, very fresh.

What letter writers say is very important. What letter writers look for is whether you have established yourself in a niche where you are a key player, if not the key player. If you came from a group of a famous advisor, they will not take kindly to the fact that you never seemed to be able to fully emerge from the advisor’s shadow. Nobody wants a pale copy of your advisor. Nobody wants to employ you to work as a de facto extended postdoc for your advisor. People want to see a clearly (from paper authorship, from new collaborations, from the disappearance of advisor from your list of coauthors after a couple of years on the tenure track) that you are your own person.

Too many people think that because someone met them when they were a student or postdoc of famous advisor, that person knows and appreciates their work. No. In most cases, they do not remember you well, and anything you did during your PhD or postdoc is in their mind likely associated with your advisor, NOT with you. You need to put yourself in their way, in front of their face, with your awesome new independent work. You need to make them override all they thought (or more likely didn’t think at all) about you as a famous advisor’s graduate student and make them start to think of you as a colleague, as a rising star, as someone whose science should be watched for originality and impact.

Doing good work is not enough to get tenure. Maybe over the course of the career good work floats to the top yadda yadda, but more likely not. Genius work, sure, merely solid work–not. There’s far too much solid work, and much gets overlooked. You need to draw the attention of people to your work; you need to make them not dismiss you. The tenure track is not infinite in duration.

Travel. Give seminars. Go to conferences where big shots will show up and introduce yourself. Invite them to give seminars at your place.

Do not put yourself in the position where people write lukewarm letters or don’t want to write because they have no idea who you are or what you did since you were a student.

***

In my fiction as in research, I fall in between the cracks of common divisions (genres in fiction; areas in research). In research, people don’t believe me I can do all the things I say I can do (but I can, honestly!) and I likely have a harder time getting money than if I’d stayed in just one area. But I like what I like, and what I like is a challenge.

I have a piece of writing that I don’t even know if I should classify as fiction or creative nonfiction. It’s got speculative elements, observational humor, and societal commentary. Choosing where to send it is challenging.

There’s a prompt and all the pieces submitted are literary fiction; I absolutely itch to and thus end up writing high fantasy.

There’s a competition with a broad science prompt; everyone submits science fiction, while I decide I’d write lab lit.

When I write it out like this, I seem like a total pain in the a$$. What else is new?

How’s your week going, bloggy friends?