Month: April 2018

Sunday Dive into the Sarlacc Pit of Femininity

Middle Boy asked something along the lines of whether I was sorry I’d never had a daughter.

To be completely honest, I’m not sorry at all; in fact, I’m relieved. I don’t think I would have been a good mom to a daughter; I’m afraid I would’ve messed her up with a combination of my own issues and my inability to perform femininity well (largely because I don’t even bother trying). I feel like I don’t really understand many of the women around me, at least not as well as I am supposed to. That’s not to say that I do understand men, but they do seem less opaque, even if they are generally annoying, if that makes any sense.

I worried much more about how I looked and what I wore before I came to the US, or, at least, I was convinced they were important. It was pure hell to find clothes that were long enough (I’m six feet tall). My mom was and still is quite focused on her appearance, both clothes and physical fitness.  She is bright and capable in the ultraenergetic entrepreneurial way, with street smarts and perhaps some adult ADHD mixed in. She’d always been quite disdainful of my father’s writing and generally all pursuits of the mind, unless they resulted in money. She’d brag about dad or later about me to her friends, but the appeal of our pursuits was alien to her. She’d never appreciated the things that were important to me and had always found me lacking in the arenas that were important to her. You have no idea how many times in life I heard from her, “If only your legs were longer, like mine; if only your fingernails were nicely shaped, like mine.”

After I left for the US, over the years, I became more dowdy. Actually, I think I released my inner dowdiness that was always there and was finally allowed to flourish away from my very looks-centric ancestral culture (which is quite typical in Europe).  After I had a kid, I no longer had long nails or wore bulky rings, because the amount of housework went up; today, I wear only my wedding band. When I started my faculty job, I started gaining weight, mostly due to stress and overwork, and the associated lack of sleep and exercise. These days, my wardrobe is more of a uniform: I wear jeans and have dozens of black tops in various cuts and fabrics (an occasional dark gray or navy blue one, and black slacks when I give talks). I am so grateful for online shopping, because I can finally get the clothes I like in tall sizes, so my pants and sleeves are long enough. I buy a pair of boots every winter, which I wear every day all winter until they fall apart and by then it’s (usually) spring; I get new ones next season (my heart is with Zappos, because I wear women’s size 11 shoes). I have one pair of sandals, which I wear all summer, until they fall apart. I have a pair of black leather shoes for the in-between times (the two weeks of spring and two weeks of fall we get) and more formal occasions, which—you guessed it!—I wear until they fall apart. I wear makeup on the days I teach, and it’s minimal: lipstick, mascara, eye shadow, blush. I have never in my life worn foundation, concealer, or any of the rest of it; thankfully, I’ve always had good skin (probably helped by never wearing full-face makeup).

When I look at the women around me, say, the moms of my kids’ friends, I don’t really fit. On the one hand, you have the stay-at-home or corporate A types. Super fit, super well dressed, everything tightened and polished to perfection. High-maintenance highlights. Brights and pastels in wardrobe. Clothes that require  dry-cleaning or ironing. I, my house, and everything I hold dear must seem like a steaming heap of garbage to them. I know these women embody feminine success and I have no idea how I would even instruct my hypothetical daughter to achieve this level of control over her looks and demeanor, which is needed so people would give her the time of day. All the stuff I hold dear and in which I have competence has to do with the inside of my head, which is not what people around me see. They just see a frumpy middle-aged woman and that’s the end of all consideration. At the opposite end from all the polish are all the frumpy people, and I am drawn to them, because I hope at least they won’t think I’m shit on sight… But then I catch myself judging them for the same things that I hate being judged for, because what’s more fun and healthy than pointing seething self-hatred outward?

Middle Boy, a fifth grader, tells me his female friends (already!) get up at 6:30 to take showers and do hair and makeup (!) and choose their clothes before school (which btw starts at 8:30 and no one lives more than a few minutes from school). They start younger and younger.

I don’t like going back to visit my ancestral home, so I simply don’t. I admit that, in great part it’s because everyone there, blunt and rude as they are (again, not uncommon for Europe)  immediately comments on how fat and old you’ve become (in the 20 years since they last saw you). My own mother can never go long without commenting on my clothes or shoes, then show me all her favorite recent purchases, and commences to compare herself to me. Yes mom, you are almost seventy and you still look better than me. Happy? It sucks to be the homely spawn of two good-looking people.

So yeah, I’m happy I don’t have daughters whom I would sentence to a lifetime of insecurity and invisibility. But what about fighting the patriarchy, you say? Sure, but whom are we kidding—that’s never been a fair fight. Patriarchy may have been taken down a notch in places, but it’s still very much kicking women’s collective ass. At least I am not directly responsible for another young woman feeling like shit because I transferred my own issues onto her or for not equipping her to succeed in this system because I never knew how to work it myself.

Thanks for taking this navel dive with me, reader. Now, let’s both get out for some air.

Evals, Again

I’ve been thinking about student evaluations. Actually, I’ve been meaning to write about my thoughts on student evaluations after a colleague in a meeting had crapped all over the concept and then proceeded to lay it on thick over all the people who receive high numbers, accusing them of dumbing down their courses.

Student evaluations of teaching are imperfect: they measure student satisfaction and professor popularity; students are biased against women and immigrants;  they should be supplemented if not supplanted by peer evaluations and other objective evaluations of student learning outcomes (I shudder at admin speak and wonder however this objective evaluation is done that’s not, you know, an exam in the course)… And so on, an so forth.

The thing is, I don’t think evaluations are completely useless because I know that most students, at least where I teach, are in fact invested in their success. They want to learn, they want to get an education for their money, and they definitely share among themselves information on who’s worth taking a class from if you want to learn versus whom you should take if you just want an easy grade.

I always get pissed when I hear my colleagues dismiss summarily student evaluations by saying that all who get good evaluations just make their courses easy. I get very high evaluations because I work my ass off.

I am apparently notorious for how hard and labor-intensive my courses are, and the students who want a challenge and who want to learn will organize their coursework to make sure to take courses with me. I am most definitely NOT a softy—by a long shot—and I am deeply offended by the colleagues who imply otherwise.   I get very high evaluations because I work my ass off.

I have a ton of office hours. Students need contact hours and my office hours are always full.

I often teach my own discussion. That’s more opportunity for contact and in a less formal setting than a lecture hall.

I learn everyone’s names. It’s a lot of work for me when there are 100 people, but it’s worthwhile because it makes for more engaged students (they feel someone cares whether they show up or not) and it’s more fun for me when I know them and they’re not just an amorphous undergrad blob.

I carefully craft homework and tweak it every year to closely follow what we’re doing in class. I have created small programming assignments to accompany each topic and give the students a more projectlike feeling when working at home.

It take a lot of effort to provide the students with the time and attention they need, with carefully selected topics and attention to how those are presented (no PPTs! I talk with them and derive/draw everything on the board so the pace would be appropriate for taking notes). I created quality course material that I feel maximize information transfer. I teach 3x a week instead on 2x because the courses are complicated and I’ve found that shorter, more frequent class meetings are better for the students. We have weekly ungraded quizzes that help the students keep track of their progress. I make sure we have the classrooms that I think work well logistically for the type of material I teach and thus enhances delivery. I know and use my strengths as a communicator.

Most students recognize quality and they know when they are learning. When they give high evaluations, they are not delusional.

I don’t know how it is for the colleagues who teach at very expensive places where I hear students can be obnoxious and entitled. Here, I find that most people do actually want to learn because they are paying good money for this education, and the money is not trivial for them or their families.

I have sat in many classes of my colleagues, doing peer review. I can say that a professor who is engaging, energetic, and knowledgeable always ends up with high student evaluations in classes that are large enough for proper statistics. I have sat in classes of several who are notorious for receiving low scores, and I can’t say that I was surprised as to why. Rule number one of teaching is that you have to be engaging enough for students to come to class and to stay awake during lecture. I am shocked by how many of my colleagues refer to this as ‘entertaining students’, as something dirty or laughable. It’s not entertaining, it’s a basic requirement—you have to have your audience’s attention. I have been in some lectures of my colleagues that made me want to blow my brains out, that’s how boring they were. Speaking in monotone, minimal engagement with students, standing next to the projector the whole time. I wanted to be anywhere but there.

You can’t teach anyone anything if you don’t want to put yourself in their shoes, envision what they know and don’t know, understand what they need from you. Empathy. You gotta have empathy for your students in order to connect with them.

Evaluation haters: please, next time when you want to advocate for supplementing or supplanting student evaluations with something else, I will support you, but please try not to crap all over your colleagues who actually do well in students’ eyes. Maybe their classes are very easy. But maybe they are as rigorous and hard as they can be, just really well taught.

Pls Review

Dear bloggy friends, if you read Academaze, please write a review on Amazon (and/or Goodreads). The reviews really help people find the book. I hope you didn’t hate it, but even if you did, leave a review anyway. Thank you!

Here’s the link to Academaze on Amazon.





In Which I Supposedly Exceed Expectations

Every N years, where N is a small prime number, each department in my college does a post-tenure review of faculty members (1/N of tenured folks get reviewed per annum). I just received my own review, in which the evaluators (a small committee composed of some of my full-professor colleagues) wrote a couple of paragraphs on my research, teaching, and service. The conclusion is that I exceeded department expectations. I was surprised by the conclusion, to be honest. I think I am doing OK, but nothing special.

But when I read their summary paragraph, it really sounded awesome. Money, papers, graduated students, high-level service at the university and in the professional community, teaching evaluations far above average even in low-level required courses with large enrollments of grumpy undergrads. So, on paper, I might indeed look awesome. I might look like I exceed expectations.

I don’t feel awesome.

I think something broke last year. Maybe this is just burnout, but burnout (at least to me) has a cyclic nature. Instead, this feels irreversible. I think my job, or some parts of my job, might have actually broken my heart. I fell out of love with my job—my vocation—and, if my romantic past is any indication, once I am out of love, there is no going back.

I had a lot of very labor-intensive and emotionally draining service at the department and university levels. At a university-level committee I was chairing, a person from another department, who had previously been my friend, made my life hell. This committee is very important and handles sensitive work, and would have been challenging during the best of times. Unfortunately, this person on one side and a higher-up admin whose agenda did not align with the mission of the committee on the other side acted the double whammy of additional stressors. Their aggression affected me profoundly.

I graduated several students.  In case you’re wondering, they all landed good industrial or national-lab jobs. One of the students was very good technically, but challenging to work with and I am overall glad he’s gone.  However, I was put in a position by another couple of students to accommodate their personal choices, as well as the whims and/or funding woes of their significant others’ advisors, to the extent that made me quite uncomfortable, but where I felt I couldn’t say no; my husband says I am nuts to give them so much leeway and I think he has a point. I try to be flexible and help my advisees  navigate the various transitional periods to the best of my ability, but in my experience students often take me for granted and are entirely self-serving in what they ask for, so I end up angry and resentful because I feel pushed far beyond what I am comfortable with because I had vowed to be helpful and flexible. They want more and more and more and somehow they always ask me, a stupid soft helpful woman, while the other important tough male advisors just dish out immutable decrees. I apologize to all future crops of graduate students, but going forward I will be far less accommodating. I will ask that what we had agreed upon be delivered in the manner and within the timeframe that we had agreed upon and I will be much stricter in enforcing how much time can be taken off for interviewing, moving, etc. I can and will be as inflexible as any man. Future students can thank those who graduated in 2017-18 for this. (This goes back to my oft-shared complaint: I wish people wouldn’t ask for so much. People say “What’s the harm in asking? You can just say no.” But the act of asking is already an imposition; it places the ball in my court and the burden on me to be the bad guy to say no, where in reality they wouldn’t have asked anything of the sort in any job or of most other advisors.)

This past year has also been a year of extreme annoyance at everyone who demands that I justify my work as worthwhile because, being that I do theory, it is a priori not worthwhile. This theory—experiment chasm has been growing in recent decades, with groups who do large-scale calculations becoming a world unto themselves with usually limited relationships with experiment, while experimentalists now think everyone just runs the codes written by someone else (We do not! Or at least my group does not.) and generally tend to neither bother to understand the work nor deem it important. This baseline disrespect and constant questioning of the core of my professional existence at the hand of my experimental peers seems to have become worse with time, instead of better with my increasing seniority. When coupled with standard parts of the job, such as the need to perpetually write grants only to have very few of them funded, or having to battle reviews to get papers published, this all makes me want to ask, “Why the hell do I care? This is all so stupid and pointless.”

A related annoying aspect is that I thought, at some point in my career, there would be respect. At some point, the mansplaining would stop or at least abate. I was wrong. I am now in a mansplaining sandwich, with both older and younger colleagues rushing to interrupt, correct, and generally talk all over me. I am so fuckin’ done talking with my colleagues. Every interaction is like having a 15-min run on a treadmill; I end up winded, with my heart racing, just from trying to finish a goddamn sentence.

There is a junior colleague whom I see often and who is particularly exhausting. I admire his energy, but he is a know-it-all who drives me bananas. He also comments on how I don’t work 24/7 like he does (he is single, comes to work at noon, meets with students at 8 pm, all that jazz). He says he can’t understand how people spend so much time getting this job and are then satisfied with just being mediocre. (I don’t know if he’s talking about me, but it sure feels that way.) When I was on the tenure track and I worked non-stop, senior colleagues were scolding me for not taking the time to go out in the sun and enjoy life. As a woman, I am some sort of mansplaining magnet. Honestly, how do people become so insufferable? To so not give a shit about those around them? It’s a complete lack of awareness and empathy. And what recourse do I have? To start telling people that they are getting on my nerves and to please stop talking? That’s a shortcut to Bitchville. Maybe I should purchase some property there.

What is funny is that I do my job and apparently do it quite well, as evidenced by my CV. You cannot tell from it (or at least the colleagues who evaluated me can’t) that I am no longer in love with my work—with my research, or my workplace, or the concept of academic science. Perhaps that’s how it needs to be, but it feels wrong. If feels like I should love it, and I used to. I used to invest all of my personal worth in it, but now it’s whatever. (In case someone wants to come and say “Move over and let someone who’s still fired up take your job,” to this I say fuck off—I don’t owe anything to anyone.)

So much of my ego used to be in my job, but I have now moved it elsewhere, probably temporarily. I am really into fiction writing and it’s going well. I get plenty of rejections, too, but at least the online community is supportive (as opposed to densely populated by egotistical mansplainers who couldn’t say a nice or even neutral thing to save a life), and I feel like I am learning and growing. There are different genres to explore and I am excited about honing my craft and  learning about the lay of the marketing land beyond the literary genre. I had my first story accepted by a zine that specializes in horror! I have a really nice SF story that I want to place into a really good market; it got several close-but-no-cigar personal rejections with feedback. I know that I am getting better because I can already see a difference between the stuff written six months ago versus today, and the journals that accept my work keep getting better and better. Even the encouraging personalized rejections (versus the form ones) get more numerous and have started coming from higher-tier places.

Someone on another blog said that, after a couple of major setbacks, he threw himself into a new hobby with passion and purpose, and got better really fast to the point that everyone was surprised and he even contemplated making this hobby a new career. But the hobby served the purpose of fortifying a wobbly ego, showing him that he could do something well when he didn’t believe he could do anything. After a while, the hobby had apparently served its purpose and was abandoned, with very little lingering interest. I wonder if fiction writing is doing the same thing for me, but my creative hobbies tend to stick around (e.g., eight years of academic blogging, and counting *gasp*!)

Anyway, we’ll see. So far I’m really enjoying fiction writing (have had a couple of dozen total literary, humor, lab lit, now horror, and hopefully soon sci-fi pieces published). I enjoy the language, learning to wield it, learning to carry a narrative and draw people in and manage the pacing, and generally letting my freak flag fly.

As for my work—well, maybe it will have to be just a job for now. We’ll see.

How’s your April 1st weekend going?