Day: September 8, 2019

This and That

  • I had an invited talk at a conference I don’t usually attend and there I met one of my former grad students, who’s now happily employed in industry. He said how one of his younger friends from his postdoc group had tried to talk to me at an earlier conference this summer, but couldn’t get to me because I was ‘too popular.’ I almost choked on my fourth coffee. I am so not a superstar; it’s hilarious that someone would see me as perpetually besieged and thus unapproachable. Although I suppose one can be a big fish if the pond is small enough. Or something.
  • You know how most people feel science is boring? I don’t know what happened to me, maybe it’s the effect of reading and writing too much fiction, but I find myself very easily annoyed and almost impossible to amuse by scientific papers. Have papers always been this goddamn awful? Or have I been exposed to an unusually bad batch of poorly written and creatively infinitesimal technical prose?
  • Maybe this is the real reason why only some hobbies are acceptable for academics in STEM fields? When you start writing fiction, technical writing becomes unbearable? The slow and painful and decidedly non-flashy nature of scientific research looks dull and drab, and, once you see it, you cannot un-see it?

Anyhow, a bit more on the acceptability of hobbies for STEMcademics. Anything physical is obviously OK, lauded even (e.g., running, rock climbing, whitewater rafting), as are music and painting, although I don’t know many practicing painters or musicians among scientists, even though I hear math and music often go together, so often that my tin ear must mean that I am deluded about my ability to do advanced math. But yes, there are a lot of runners and gym rats among STEM folks. Artisanal baking or cooking are OK, too.

Some other hobbies appear to be shameful. Nobody ever confesses to gaming or to watching movies or TV shows. A number of my colleagues lament how they wish they had more time for movies or TV, thereby simultaneously boasting how virtuously busy they are (protestant work ethic?) and signaling how lowly of a pastime they consider video entertainment to be. Then there are the hobbies that involve parts of the brain that should be used in cranking out papers, such as blogging or writing. One should never admit to engaging in these hobbies, lest one wants to be told they have too much time on their hands and should spend it writing papers instead.

I wonder how people would react to saying you don’t just occasionally play an instrument, you compose music and/or are seriously involved with a band or an orchestra. Or that you don’t just cook for your family, you’re actually a part-time chef at a restaurant and/or have written cookbooks. Or that you aren’t just a gamer, that you develop and sell games (unless you’re in CS and specialize in computer graphics or animation). Or that you’re a lifestyle or makeup vlogger. Or that you paint or sculpt so avidly that you’ve exhibited your art and/or made some serious coin off the hobby.

While running marathons seems to be universally lauded, because physical exercise is considered a good destressor and generally beneficial to your performance on the job, it seems to me that being too serious about nearly any other pursuit might raise eyebrows of colleagues; they think it siphons creativity from where it is supposed to lie: your job. As if creativity is a well you can only deplete, as if it’s not replenished (at least for some of us) by a large variety of creative pursuits.

This attitude has even been coded in the university effort reporting protocols. You don’t report the fraction of a 40-hour workweek you spend on a project; you report a percentage of your overall expended effort; presumably, when it comes to work hours, sky is the limit. There is an underlying assumption that all your effort goes into your job.

Remember Ken Cosgrove on Mad Men, who wrote science fiction? His boss Roger Sterling told him to knock it off, because the advertising job (where a client shot Cosgrove in the eye) provided everything a man could possibly need. If I remember correctly, the following night, Cosgrove wrote a sci-fi story about a robot who could only turn one knob on or off.

Not sure where I’m going with this.

Sometimes I get really grumpy about how little of myself I can show to the world, and how little the people with whom I interact get to know me and I them. It’s probably for the best, I know, for people usually consider me to be too much along every imaginable axis, but this making of myself small and palatable and partitioning of the self into bite-sized pieces is exhausting, saddening, enraging. I had a 15-min meeting with our (newish) department chair which took me two months to schedule, yet I could tell that she couldn’t wait for me to leave. She’s always been friendly and polite, but I’ve always had the feeling that whatever time we’re scheduled to spend together is too long.

So few of us really know each other. It would be nice to be known by someone other than kids and husband. But, if to be known is to always to be considered too much, then perhaps maybe not.

One could say that your colleagues are not your friends and I suppose that’s fine. But we spend decades working alongside one another, it’s almost a shame not to develop something resembling friendships, kind of like with neighbors — life thrusts you together, why not make the best of it? But most colleagues are focused on their work and family and don’t want to broach anything non-work related and don’t seem to (although, how would I even know?) have much going on outside family and work, except maybe church. Outside work, I’ve made some near-friendships in town, parents of my kids’ friends and folks in my sci-fi book club. It’s all great, but again, my foreignness (everyone else is local) and my general intensity freak everyone out. So I tone myself down, enforce quiet and passivity, and focus on absorbing. I think many people want to be heard, but don’t necessarily hear others. They want an audience, but never listen. Wanting people to consider you as a real multifaceted person, as someone who’s not just a minor character in their narrative, appears to always be an imposition.