Month: February 2018

Sucker for Punishment

A fiction piece of mine got rejected by a market where I really thought it would fit. I’ve also been bracing for a whole wave of declinations of papers/grants/stories, wondering what the heck is wrong with me that I choose to subject myself to this in perpetuity. Sadly, none of this stops me from wasting time on the web. Long story short, a poor blogger MD who is facing some breastfeeding challenges received the following piece of unhelpful but hopefully diverting “advice” as my comment.

———-

Take up a hobby where you will be subject to constant rejection. (I write short fiction and get rejections weekly; nay, daily!) Take up writing research grants as a significant portion of your job, thereby assuring you will be mercilessly pummeled with a continuous stream of scathing criticism from the NIH/NSF/myriad funding agencies. .

Completely lose confidence in own competence on any front, thereby getting cured of all type-A/perfectionist/control tendencies. Get crushed by refusals some more, just in case you manage to raise your head a bit and contemplate possible non-suckage in any realm for more than three nanoseconds, because we can’t have you entertaining such ludicrous ideas.

Realize that the fact that your kids are gorgeous, healthy, and well fed is a miracle since you have no competencies whatsoever. Gratefully reach for pumped milk or formula when facing a fussy child paired up with empty breasts in the evening. Pass no judgement on self because you have already established that you suck as much as it is humanly possible to suck. Contemplate becoming a “you suck” meme.

Write an essay about motherhood challenges, submit it for publication and get it rejected four dozen times, thereby exhausting all the markets. Serves you well; you don’t want to start feeling like you’re competent as a mother or a writer, do you?

Keep sucking. Realize that you suck so much that perhaps this means you, in fact, excel at sucking. Have mind literally explode while trying to resolve this cognitive dissonance. Annoy husband, as he now has to clean bits of brain from the sofa cushions. Feel vindicated because, had he listened to you and bought the leather sofa you wanted, he would now not have to scrape your gray matter from in between the ridges of corduroy upholstery.

Posthumously receive a large NIH/NSF grant, acceptance letters from top literary magazines for your fiction, and the La Leche League Most Devoted Breastfeeder Evah Medal of Honor.

Ha-ha. No. Even posthumously, you just suck.

Navel, Meet Myers and Briggs (Part 2)

I’ve been procrastinating on this post because it requires me to project a multidimensional process onto the linear (one-dimensional) thread of a blog post.

SHU of The SHU Box blog and I discovered that we are Myers-Briggs polar opposites (she’s ESFJ; I’m INTP) so she asked me about how I organize things in the personal and professional, since she’s a master list maker and I cannot do lists at all (which I think relates to Tactics, where I am strong P, “a prospector”).

I am not sure where to start, so I will just start with some examples and see where we get.

Things that require no action on my part other than showing up somewhere (dentists, doctors, stand-up comedy shows or concerts DH and I like to go to): I put in the phone calendar, set 2-3 alarms (two days early, one day early, the day of) and completely forget about it. The calendar on my phone is the only type of calendar I do not hate with a fiery passion. I never think about these events again until the alarms start. On the day of the fun outings, I invariably don’t want to go; my first impulse is always to cancel whatever I promised I would go to, and I have never been happy about leaving the kids without at least one of us at home (even though Eldest will be 18 in March and is a great babysitter).  I know myself enough to know that most of the time I do end up enjoying the event and try to suppress the impetus to flee/be difficult. [My husband, who is my Myers-Briggs near opposite (ISFJ) likes to get in the mood, especially for concerts, by listening to the artist’s songs for a day or two before the event. He is also a planner.]

Planning work trips: I am a big believer in satisficing when it comes to the stuff that I don’t particularly care about. I give myself a fixed amount of time to work on the trip: pick decent flights, book a hotel, perhaps rent a car, and do not think about the logistics of the trip again until the day of. I can go from 100% unpacked to ready to go without forgetting anything in well under an hour, so I refuse to expend any energy on trip minutiae until the day of. Also, I always travel to industrialized places, so if I arrive without toothpaste in Washington, DC, this is hardly an insurmountable problem.

Planning kids’ activities: I don’t care for this, but DH outright hates it (he is super introverted), so it’s usually on me. We keep our weekends low key and are generally either available for playdates, or I am taking Eldest to something music related, or Middle Boy to something basketball or flag-football related. DH takes Smurf to acting (Smurf has a really good voice and an ear for music, so we might do choir with him; we’ll see). I’m the one texting with other parents about drop off/pickup times. (Fun fact: My phone is always on total silence. I check it often enough that I’m unlikely to miss things, but even vibration bugs me. I do set the alarm on my phone to ring when it’s time to end my class. I also set the alarm to wake me up from random naps.)

Kids’ camps: I collect information about kids’ camps throughout the year and file them somewhere in the brain, also bookmark in my browser. They don’t bother me until I decide, usually sometime in March, to devote an afternoon to the activity. Then I sit down and book a whole summer worth of stuff for everyone and it’s done. For this, an essential tool is a printout of an annual calendar, so I have the whole summer at a glance. I don’t know how other people do it, but to me these planning activities hold no joy whatsoever, so my goal is to do them decently and in as little time as possible.

Vacation: I will pick a place where we will go (based on free-floating information, everyone’s preferences/whining, and my own level of adventurousness), find a hotel, book and pay whatever needs booking and paying for, put it on the calendar and again forget about it. I am not one for planning day-to-day activities months in advance. DH enjoys the planning aspect and I am very grateful that he does, because the kids prefer a busy holiday over a lazy one that would be my choice. But planning outing activities is something I freakin’ hate hate hate because it involves committing myself to stuff that I perceive to be of little importance, and my impetus is always to run away screaming. [DH and I drive each other a bit (okay, a lot!) crazy with our packing habits, me with my last-minute mad scramble, him with an elaborate process.]

Basically, if you want me to do something in the future, I need to be able to spend as little time as possible thinking about it and completely forget about it until no more than a day or two before. That’s the only way that I won’t freak out about a commitment simply existing and do anything to get out of the whole thing.

Some things that help:

a) I have a very good memory for faces (never forget one) and a reasonably good one for names, especially once I’ve remembered the face. I don’t know that I am better at this than the average woman, probably not, but DH always regards my ability to remember people and place them out of context as some sort of a superpower.

b) Satisficing: When I don’t really care deeply about the outcome of something, I commit to a set of requirements that need to be fulfilled and as soon as they are, I complete the process. A good example was how we purchased the car for Eldest. As his main driver, I was getting increasingly pissed with my chauffeuring workload last year, and eventually DH agreed to the purchase. DH didn’t want to look for the car, as he’s a perfectionist and would take forever to get the research done and the prospect of it was making him anxious (the car would be absolute perfection, though). I said leave it to me, just tell me what the nonnegotiable features are. We agreed on price under $6k, reliable (Honda or Toyota), and low mileage. I spent an evening looking at cars from dealers and private sellers (maybe 3 hours total), came up with a list of 12 potential ones, we narrowed it down to 2, I emailed the sellers that same evening, we scheduled to see one early the next morning, test-drove it, loved it, went to a nearby bank to get a cashier’s check and bought it right there. By noon, Eldest owned (well, co-owned with me) a fully registered car.

How do I stay organized at work?

Everything work-related is in my head and I don’t mind. I imagine the inside of my head as the body of the pirate shit or the foyer to a castle or an opera house: a large three-dimensional space with balconies and/or chairs (basically pockets where something could be placed on the side at different heights). Now you can imagine tasks to be floating colorful blobs, like what you would make out of cotton candy or slime. Each task has many attributes: how large, what color, shape, smell, etc. These correspond to how important a task is, how much I care, how interesting it is to me, how urgent, etc. These different floaties float around, hit one another, sometimes they merge, sometimes they hang out at one of the balconies for a while before they come back out, sometimes they completely vanish, and their attributes constantly change over time. I think the key aspects of this ‘organization’ if you can call it that are dynamics (change over time) and how I feel about doing a task (VERY important). I am a major procrastinator when I don’t really want to do something, and that often is because I don’t really think what I promised to do is actually important.

I also crave lots of intellectual stimulation and need variety, because if something is boring it is very hard to care about doing it, and if I don’t care, then it’s very hard to make myself to it. Which is why I keep adding every more intellectually stimulating hobbies and they tend to find their place in my life and stay there, occasionally taking up more or less of my time. I think this variety helps productivity because I can always find something I want to work on, even when what I should work on isn’t that. (It’s a bit like farmers planting different plants in the same parcel in different years, which helps maintain the long-term fertility of the soil.)

Having a set schedule with predetermined periodicity for anything without a very good reason is a recipe for disaster/resentment on my part. This I cannot fake. If I truly believe that something is foolish, ill-conceived, or otherwise a poor use of my time, there is no way to trick myself into believing that it is in fact important. All I will ever want to do is procrastinate or cancel. Best case scenario: is I half-ass it.

For instance, I don’t mind teaching at all, or regular office hours four days of the week when my office is full every time. I resent office hours twice a week for a small class when no one shows up. I resent weekly faculty meetings because I think they are a poor use of everyone’s time and I am delighted to schedule class so that I miss half an hour of the meeting every week.

I don’t want to have weekly meetings with each grad student, but only with those who actually truly crave this interaction and have new stuff to show me every week. Most students are happier, as am I, meeting on an as-needed basis. If a student is stuck, I will clear out my afternoon and spend hours trouble-shooting; I will go for days, as long as needed, rather than lock us into weekly meetings where they’re gonna show up half the time with nothing really new to discuss.

I really really really like to keep my schedule as open as possible, which means few recurrent meetings, especially on the timescales that are too short for meaningful updates (a week). Then I have a lot of freedom of choice as to what I work on.

I think the keys to my productivity are stamina, a broad portfolio of professional and personal projects, and self-indulgence.

I am very much NOT a person of balance and routine, but one of extremes. I crave late nights and overwork, when I fire off on all cylinders, followed by days of slouching about, deflated. I can work more than most people when there’s a deadline and I love it. But then I need to go into a cave and watch Netflix and sleep. Then I might come back with the urge to clean my house. A big problem is that every routine eventually gets on the chopping block because this perpetual turmoil is a defining characteristic of my modus operandi (*sniff* 4:30 am exercise, I miss you *sniff*; maybe in the spring again; maybe something else).

As I said, my projects are like these floaties whose size, shape, and myriad other attributes change over time. I maximize productivity by trying, as much as possible, to do the stuff that I crave to do at a given moment. When there’s something I really itch to work on, there’s little point in avoiding to scratch it. Refusing to do what I want to do and instead trying to force myself to focus on something I am supposed to do only works if what I am supposed to do is really, really, REALLY important TO ME (which basically means a grant deadline). Otherwise, it won’t happen. It makes much more sense to let myself work on what I want to work on until I am sated, and then when I am a little tired and a little less fired up, I have a better chance of tackling something that doesn’t excite me. I call this the “cake before dinner” approach to work and I believe that’s key to getting large amounts of intellectually challenging work done.

For instance, if I have an itch to work on a new short story, there’s no way I am working on anything else unless I work at least a bit on the story. That’s the only way to move that giant balloon out of my face and have it deflate it a bit, so I can get to the stuff behind.

I definitely have a bit of an obsessive nature; having stamina helps.

How do I keep track of details? I don’t know; I just do, I guess. In my work I am naturally very detail-oriented, and to me focus = details. My former postdoc told me I was the most thorough person he’d ever worked with. If I’m really focused, I just don’t miss things.

In my work, I need to understand things as well as I possibly can, and once I’ve understood them, it becomes easy to talk about them or write them up or make a PPT or whatever. But before truly understanding, comes a long time of just wallowing in data. Looking at data lots of different ways, asking more questions and getting more data, thinking about the math, reading, just kind of sitting in it, letting it permeate my consciousness and subconsciousness, until it all comes together. I think this comfort with not knowing, the ability to withhold judgement is key to the scientific process, or at least to my scientific process. Just letting the problem be a tiny floatie, floating and bumping into other things, coming into the foreground every so often after it’s bumped into something else, growing over time…

Do I forget things? Not really, but I also have a great capacity for doing a half-assed job. Maybe that’s what satisficing really is. Or, a nicer way of putting it is (as per gwinne and undine) doing things at 70%. Whenever something I don’t actually care about (and there’s a lot of that) can be done at 70%, I do it. Soooo much can be done at 70% in one sitting.

SHU asked how I don’t forget stuff for a kid’s party. I don’t know. I might mull over for a while in my head what type of party we’ll have, but once I decide what and where, I very quickly book everything, send out the invitations, and then don’t think about it until the day prior. Then I get up that morning, go to the party store and wherever else needed, and just get everything. As the party is my focus for the morning, I don’t need a list. We’ve had all sorts of parties (3 kids), from swim parties to bounce-house parties to parties in our own home, with a magician and the need to feed everyone. Even with the latter, I can get from zero to completely ready to go in just a few hours.

Also, I don’t meal plan in the sense in which I see people do it (go shopping with recipes). I cook the vast majority of daily repertoire from memory and/or I improvise. I  go look at what looks good/speaks to me and shop around that. Usually I will take requests from family before I go to the store, so that might motivate the choices. We usually have pasta with beef sauce (a somewhat lazy pasta Bolognese) once a week, as it’s everyone’s favorite. One or two rice-based dinners per week, usually a stir fry with rice or what I call a ‘deconstructed burrito.’ Weekday cooking is based on my energy level. Sometimes we have soup and homemade panini. Sometimes we all have hot dogs. Sometimes I saw something yummy during the week and a great-looking eggplant reminds me of it and that’s what I cook. I hate planning meals in advance; if I need to cook something and I’m not in the mood to cook it (often tired after work on the weekdays), I will end up not cooking at all and pick some hot food along the way instead.

I don’t know if what I’ve written makes sense to people. Basically, I operate by devoting short burst of focused attention to things that require little intellectual effort, without giving them much thought the rest of the time. “Done is better than perfect” or satisficing or doing things at 70% would be my motto here. For the stuff that does require serious intellectual engagement or creative thought, or things I really care about, I generally mull them over in the background, low-level, for a very long time. They work their way through my subconsciousness and fly into and out of my consciousness, along with many other problems I think about, and they change and grow until they’re ready to be acted upon. “Cake before dinner” is my motto here, doing what I feel like doing first, then the stuff I care less about but that should get done. I have a grant deadline in a couple of weeks; I’ve been thinking about this grant, on and off, probably for the whole past year.

The morning shower in an excellent place to think about what I need to cover in class that day and how exactly I am going to pitch it. I have never taught the exact same way twice; course offerings change based on the class composition; doing every lecture from scratch, just me and the markers and the white board, is the way that really works well for me (I will sometimes show a short movie or some specific images, but I don’t use PPTs). Every class gets their own drawings of de Broglie and Schroedinger (always a big hit :-), SpongeBob and Patrick, as well as assorted snakes and dinosaurs and random other bits. Plane waves and conjugate variables in general can be illustrated through characters sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g. Since we’re in the middle of the Winter Olympics, the other day figure skating gave an excellent foray into the tensor of inertia, which segued into the concept of the eigenvalue problem of linear operators. But I digress…

***

The female colleagues I know well enough in real life are all very different from me, in that they are consummate schedule upholders and list devotees. IRL I do know one or two people who are ‘all over the place’ like me, and they are male.

Then there’s really the question of how much you know someone, IRL or online, from the limited information we learn to give one another after we’ve grown up… Someone asked me a week or so ago if I envy others and if others envy me. I said I know for a fact that I do envy others, but I don’t think that anyone envies me, or at least I’m not aware of anyone envying me, to which the person who asked the question chuckled. We really don’t know very much about what other people think or feel. I don’t think most of us actually lie online, but we do allow for just a very narrow outlook into our worlds, even those of use who are nominally open (e.g., me blogging anonymously); for instance, DH says I am not like I am on the blog, that on the blog I sound really serious and I’m not like that at all. I think people who blog under their real (or real-ish) identities tend to curate more, especially if they are lifestyle bloggers so their income is tied to the projected persona, but even those of us who don’t still relay only part of the information. That doesn’t mean people are pretending per se, because pretending to be someone you’re really not is actually quite taxing. For instance, me blogging about lists and planners would require a Herculean effort. Seriously! Lists and planners are so far from being me that there’s no way I could pull it off, or the effort required for me to become some online planner authority would far surpass any potential usefulness of such an endeavor; someone who is truly a list maker is, of course, also much more than a list maker, but that’s not to say that they are not being truthful about being a list maker. It’s just one part of their persona. Scalzi wrote about it eloquently somewhere — about us showing just bits and pieces online, and that being OK.

***

Double phew! Time to post this, before it morphs into an untamable beast.

Thoughts? Questions? (Just noticed undine’s most recent post! Hi, INTP sistah! *waves*)

Blogosphere, how do you stay organized, especially if you are not a list aficionado?

Navel, Meet Myers and Briggs (Part 1)

I have so much work to do, but this pair of posts is something that I absolutely have to write, so here we are.

Not that I shield my long-suffering readership from my all-too-frequent sightseeing excursions into my own navel, but this might be even weirder (also potentially more uplifting) than the usual fare. And it’s a two-parter.

I don’t remember feeling like I didn’t fit anywhere when I was a kid. I probably should’ve, but didn’t, or at least it didn’t bother me too much. Even as a kid I was what I would call ‘an acquired taste.’ I wasn’t popular and I felt that, as far as social graces were concerned, there were all these rules that other kids had internalized in daycare but I never had, as I had been cared for by my grandma before starting school, but I was a kid generally at peace with myself. I liked what I liked; I was very good at academics and competed in science and math; I also played sports in high school, and while I wasn’t popular or anything, I truly never cared about that anyway. I felt that the things I had going for me were generally good things, things that made me stand out in a good way.

But throughout most of my adulthood, I have been feeling that I am not how I am supposed to be, that I don’t fit in, and that everything I have achieved is not because of my strengths but by some sort of miracle and in spite of my numerous and overwhelming weaknesses. Why I feel this way I do not know, but the feeling has been growing over time, over the past twenty years. Perhaps it’s because I am now middle-aged, or because I live in a country where I didn’t grow up (although as I hit 18 years of living in the US that seems like an increasingly lame excuse), or because I do the job that I do (macho field; very competitive; relentless criticism and rejections; women few and far between), or because of the prevalence of social media and my reluctant but increasing participation in them… But yes, I’ve been feeling ever more that all that makes me me is a collection of maladaptive traits and that I have been doing reasonably well in life by sheer luck and despite of myself, because how I am couldn’t possibly produce anyone who’s capable of achieving anything.

In great part, the reason I feel like I am some kind of freak is that all the women with whom I tend to identify (highly educated and professionally successful women) in my life and even many I meet online seem to be absolutely nothing like me. Absolutely nothing like me. I am like the bizarro-universe version of them. This includes several female colleagues who are held up as role models of female excellence in my and related fields.

What brought this up, you ask?

I love The SHU Box blog because SHU seems like a really lovely, kind, patient person, and she has a beautiful family. I love seeing the pics of the kids growing up and all the fun they have. [Another one I love is Academomia; Becca (the mom/author of Academomia) is a hilarious writer.]

There are some other blogs that are connected to SHU’s but that I just can’t follow (such as Laura Vanderkam‘s or Lag Liv). I am sure the women behind these blogs are nice people, and they have lovely and large families, but their blogs are very much not for the likes of me. I understand these are curated online personas, but every post on these just makes me feel ugly, fat, uncombed, friendless, stupid, and generally a disorganized pathetic excuse for a woman and a mother. Again, not their authors’ fault, but this is the effect they have on me, so I don’t read them, other than on occasions when I am really in the mood for some quality self-loathing.

But SHU’s blog has a different tone, which has melted my Grinch heart, so I generally find myself cheering her and her family on from the sidelines (I don’t comment there often).

One aspect of SHU’s blog that I find fascinating is that she is a master planner and list maker. She has a well-developed set of algorithms and beautiful stationery for making lists of various levels and planning all aspects of her life, personal and professional. (She has a planner Instagram account, but I can’t find the link. Also a work-life balance podcast. I don’t follow these, though, but do check them out.)

I find SHU’s planning posts fascinating in an alien sort of way. This modus operandi is very, very far from mine. I have tried various planning exercises in the past and they only end up making me extremely  anxious. They don’t help me get organized or relieve pressure; instead, they make me feel like my whole body is covered in poison ivy and I need to get out of my own skin.

I have always thought that I’m a freak because normal adults plan this way, and that I am simply self-indulgent and hopelessly immature.

And then for some reason I did the Myers-Briggs personality test (and this wasn’t even the first time in my life that I’ve done it, but I always forget what I get). I did this one ; there are others. It turned out I was an INTP(-T) and I felt that the explanation of the personality traits really captured a lot about my approach to life, both the professional and the personal. I’m not a freak! I have a legitimate personality type, albeit relatively rare: only 3% of the population (also here), but nonuniform between the sexes: 4.8% men but only 1.7% women — I guess it’s not surprising that I feel like a freak? I mean this half in jest; I know these tests are not really scientific, but it did make me feel quite a bit better in the moment. I am embarrassed to say this, because I am a forty-four-year-old woman and I should by now know myself and the world and everything else, really, as well as I ever will, but there you have it: a Myers-Briggs personality test made me feel understood and OK in a way that the I haven’t been able to get from the real-life crowd around me in a very long time. Not a freak, just an INTP(-T). I will take it.

I did the test again today so I’d get a screen shot. Behold! I believe the propensity for making lists would be encapsulated under “Tactics.” When you see how strong my P is, it becomes clear that I am comically unlikely to be a list maker.

 

to be continued

Rotten

One reason for the rising job disillusionment among us academics is that administration keeps gaslighting us. They want us to eat up clearly illogical, bullshit explanations for their maneuvers, when the following simple explanation is really behind the vast majority of them:

Whenever something is being pushed relentlessly, regardless of pretext, the real reason is that someone has decided to cut costs or divert funds from the fulfillment of our core missions. 

That’s it. End of story. Whenever some bullshit makes no sense, this is the real reason that people don’t want to talk about (they might if you press hard, really hard).

This is also one of the big reasons why I am an opponent of the flipped classroom.  (Disclaimer: I’m not saying it can’t be done right, but it’s being done far too broadly and far too badly, and when it’s done badly it’s worse than a traditional class gone badly. Also, disciplines differ; schools differ. I am talking about mine.) There’s a colleague who’s a real flipped-classroom zealot, but then his ‘flipped students’ get into my follow-on course and they don’t know anything. For courses with a lot of physics, the students need to be taught how to set up problems, and then use math to solve them. None of the students were taught that in the flipped class, because learning how to solve problems — which is the only thing that counts, none of the ‘I know the concepts’ bullshit: you either know the concepts well enough to apply them to problems or you don’t actually know them — requires learning from an expert who shows you how to set up and solve problems, step-by-step, with plenty of opportunity to ask questions and interrupt, and then also have humans check how you set up problems and how you solved them (also known as grading).

When, at the end of the day, my classes (traditional lecture, with plenty of homework, many office hours, and a discussion section) produces far better students for the follow-on classes than the flipped equivalent, I finally get to hear the real reason: We are facing increasing enrollments and to serve more students without an increase in the teaching-assistant budget or splitting courses into sections, the only way is to go all electronic. That way, you prerecord lecture nuggets, have everything done electronically (including grading). A single instructor, assisted by perhaps one (or none) graduate TA, and a whole horde of (note!) inexpensive undergraduate student hourlies can serve hundreds of students, where serve = walk around in case people have questions. Let’s repeat: hundreds of students with one instructor, at most one TA, and a whole bunch of ultracheap undergrads acting as helpers… With prerecorded lectures and all-electronic assessment. Let’s not forget that, for all this goodness, students are paying ever-increasing tuition. (Funny story: One undergrad student hourly in my zealot colleague’s undergraduate flipped course, who was chosen presumably because they did really well in that class, ended up getting a C in my follow-on course. What a helper this student must have been!)

Grading and giving actual human feedback on hundreds of exams is hard. Teaching large courses takes up a tremendous amount of time. But being there and putting in face time and sweat equity — both on the part of the student and the instructor — is the only way. Smaller classes are better — I have been advocating for splitting these ballooning classes into smaller sections, but my pleas have been falling on deaf ears… It was doable 20 years ago, but now it’s somehow not. It’s likely not cost-effective. If I am overworked, I’ve been told that I should flip the classroom and generally shut the fuck up.

Well, there’s something I’d like to flip, that’s for sure, and it ain’t the goddamn classroom.

This all comes on the heels of replacing an excellent course management system by one that is vastly inferior, campus wide. Why? Blahblahblah. “It has a better user demo.” WTF? Who cares about demos? These things are all easy to use, and the superior system is actually so intuitive that it didn’t need a demo at all. The new one misses important features, and, ironically, diehard classroom flippers cannot port most of their assignments between the new and old platforms (insert onomatopoeia of Schadenfreude here). None of the cited reasons for what happened makes sense… Except, of course, that someone managed to cut cost and/or line someone else’s pockets with the change of the course management system.

Some time ago, we all got new phones as the analog phone lines were discontinued (there still have to be some analog phones left in labs for safety reasons) and everyone moved to VoIP. It’s a giant pointless undertaking, because so few people actually use their office phones for anything any more.  I have had an extended absence greeting for years that says, “You won’t be able to leave a message here. If you need to get a hold of me, send an email.” The vast majority of my colleagues and I use email or Skype for all communications; if I actually want someone to call me, I give them my cell number, because I am in and out of the office so much. Now we all get these useless new phones, a massive investment marginally more useful than getting new fax machines (which we didn’t get, thank heavens). This is money simply down the drain. Why didn’t we do something useful with this money? Like hire more staff? More TAs? Buy freaking desks and chairs for graduate students? Because whoever manages money has no interest in what the faculty actually need, or, more nefariously, knows exactly what the faculty need and instead chooses to fritter money away on expensive stupidities. Someone’s pockets got lined up on this, I can smell it.

There are also extensive renovations in the building, which would be fine if we hadn’t done equally extensive renovations just a few years ago. Because the exact color of the walls is absolutely critical for student learning. If anything, it would only make sense if having the whole goddamn campus color coordinated is likely to affect the students’ subconscious in a way that makes them more likely to donate large sums of money later in life. Which I bet someone somewhere did a study on and showed to be true.

We have 1/3 of the department staff that we had when I joined. Student coordinators, who used to know every student, have now been consolidated at the college level. They are not even in the building and most of us don’t know when they’re hired or fired or who’s to be asked for a problem with a student or to do something about classroom assignments, because all these people are sequestered under the pretense of efficiency, but it’s really cutting costs by reducing the staff that actually supports the core mission, with a side benefit (or perhaps the central benefit) being the loss of actual ties between faculty and staff, which leads to reduced understanding and empathy, and increasing animosity.

I feel for the students whose families pay through the nose for the education. I feel for the bare-bones, overworked staff who actually support the core mission — teaching and research. I feel for us faculty, as these small defeats, these small humiliations, these instances of gaslighting where we’re told that something makes sense but it really doesn’t for anyone who really cares about the students — we are here for the students; this is a goddamn university; has everyone forgotten it? — add up to a fabric of our careers at these formerly grand state schools, a fabric that’s full of holes and smells rotten.

High Maintenance

Whenever I teach large lower-level courses, I have at least one. Occasionally more, but one for sure, and it’s usually just the one.

The student who requires more mental real-estate than the rest of the giant class put together. 

The one this semester isn’t too bad; he’s not as demanding as some I had in the past, but it’s only week three… We might be in for a long semester.

Over a month before the semester starts, the student informs me he will miss the first class just because and could I send him the materials; I do, to which he complains they are last offering’s materials, and could he have this year’s (they don’t yet exist, kid). Also, when will the exams be, so he can plan his travel (FFS kid, it’s over a month till the semester starts).

Upon learning when the exams will be, the student asks that I accommodate his religious observance for one of the midterm exams, which sure, I will do it because it’s required, but it doesn’t make me delighted as the class is giant and I already have people needing extra time and/or a small testing room and whatnot. The university just wants us to go along with these accommodations without giving a shit as to whose time goes into it, or where these accommodations take place, or that humans cannot be in multiple places at once. But alright.

Then the semester starts and the student is somehow the only one who cannot upload his homework files using the online course management system and I need to worry about keeping track of his emailed materials. No one else in class has any issues with the system.

Then the kid can’t sit with the rest of the class in the large classroom, he has to pull in a desk from elsewhere so he can sit very close to the board. (I’m not sure he’s following all that well, based on the questions he asks. He hasn’t been to any office hours, though.)

Then the student just has to travel home on Thursday and miss the Friday lecture (it’s week three of the semester and it’s not a holiday; maybe someone’s sick or there’s another good reason, but it seems to be just because). Could I send him all the materials? How will he know what he missed? (Kid, you have course notes, you have the book, you have the syllabus, I write on the course website what we cover. What I say in class is what I say in class, that’s why we have lectures that you shouldn’t miss. Not sure what else to tell you — get someone’s notes.)

Any one of these is not a big deal, but together they paint a picture of someone who’s quite high maintenance.

I wonder what happens to these kids as they join the workforce.  I can’t imagine the ‘real world’ will have much patience with myriad requests for exceptions.

On Membership in Professional Societies

Show of hands: How many academics actually consider professional-society memberships to be useful?

I recently renewed my memberships of two professional societies. They were not cheap.

For one of the societies, I do not remember ever having had a real use for the membership. Ever. I understand that for people outside academia these memberships perhaps provide a way to stay current with the technical literature, but for this particular society I fully admit that I renew because sometime in the next few years I plan to go up for fellow, which is expected of a reputable academic in my department and at peer institutions. I have done service for the society, again mostly to help with the eventual fellowship application. I don’t like to publish in their journals (slow and don’t have high impact factors). I engaged with them in the past (the year Smurf was born) about the conference I was organizing, but they did not make anything better, easier, or cheaper — quite the contrary. Further involvement of the society would’ve resulted in vastly higher conference registration fees and far too much of a trade-show feel, both of which I wanted to avoid. So never again.

For the second one, my main reason for renewing is, also, that I eventually plan on applying for elevation to fellow. However, I am also more engaged with this society, as I like their journals; I both publish in them and review for them often, but I could do that just as well without the membership, if we’re being honest. The membership does offer benefits for the attendance of certain meetings, including a massive annual one, but far less now than when I was junior. The membership costs less than for the first society, so I don’t get quite as grumpy when the time comes to renew.

Overall, I keep renewing grudgingly every year because it is expected, but I don’t actually see the benefits, not in my daily work or meeting attendance. Again, I understand there are benefits for professionals outside academia.

Blogosphere, what are your feelings about professional-society memberships?

New Semesterish

The new semester started and the return of routine is somewhat invigorating. I need to get back to exercise; it fell somewhat by the wayside during the winter break.

I spend a lot of time interacting with undergraduates this semester. Basically, three days of my workweek go into teaching or teaching-related contact and activities.

I have a big deadline coming up on March 1, which is daunting/paralyzing, as well as exciting. I am very deadline driven, so it  should be fine.

I’m not too psyched about my latest crop of graduate students, that’s all I will say. I got spoiled by my most recent graduates. Expectations need to be recalibrated.

The problem with academics is that we’re expected (by colleagues and higher-up admins, but mostly by ourselves) to pour our entire beings into the career. But sooner or later, most of us find that careers don’t really love us back.  It’s a cumulative effect of ever mounting administrivia, eroding support for the higher education especially visible at state schools, and constantly being slapped around (critical reviews, rewrites, unrelenting grant rejections). And at some point we turn around to find out that few people actually care about what we do, and that those people might include us.

I think I am finally at the place where I am OK saying that this is a job. A good job, with lots of perks and freedoms, but it is a job. It is not an embodiment of my soul, or at least not all of my soul. It is OK to enjoy parts and not enjoy other parts, and for these parts to change over time. It is OK to not put 100% in, especially when no one else seems to do things above 70% of their capacity. I know these sound like trivial insights, but the good little girls (and boys) among us need constant reminders that being less than perfect is OK.

There are many exhausting things about being a faculty member, and a woman in a men-dominated field, and also a theorist in a field seemingly filled by experimentalists who appear convinced that theorists (except for the one or two they have heard of) are useless time wasters. But I am too exhausted to list all the things that are exhausting.

Instead, I will go look for the incarnations of the pieces of my soul elsewhere. One might be among the Amazon Prime movies. Plenty are at the local library and in online fiction magazines. The parts of my soul that are still inside me all want chocolate.

(Btw, top 2017 commenters lyra211, gasstationwithoutpumps, and Prodigal Academic, your rewards have been sent! Check your email!)