Month: August 2020

The End of Non-sabbatical and Non-summer

Today, I am feeling acutely peeved because the pandemic has eaten up a semester of my sabbatical. I know I shouldn’t think this, I’m counting my blessings, etc. But there it is. Sabbatical is a major perk of a faculty job, one that makes up for a lot of other things. Yet here I was, sitting at home all spring at significantly reduced pay, while everyone else was sitting at home at full pay. They still get to go on their sabbatical when this is all over; my next one won’t be for another seven years, or when my middle kid is in college. When Smurf is in high school. By the way, this was my second sabbatical ever. The first one was spent caring for the newborn Smurf. So yeah. I have yet to have a real and full sabbatical.

On the other hand, how do we have real, rejuvenating sabbaticals when there are research groups to constantly supervise? I don’t have to teach and go to faculty meetings, but none of other obligations ever stop or change. Students want supervision, need constant check-ins. Papers and grants need to be written. Those of others have to be reviewed. Talks need to be given. Most of the work is still there, in the same form as ever, just at reduced pay.


August was never really a month of relaxation in academia, and this year quite dramatically so.

There have been innumerable emails all summer about every minute change regarding in-person/online teaching. Not that we, faculty, have any say in what transpires, but there are pro-forma online “town-hall” meetings and surveys and whatnot, giving an illusion of faculty governance to only the most naive. When push comes to shove, such as when someone asks to be moved online because they’re just not comfortable teaching face-to-face in a tiny lab, because the students write and ask why the instructor is putting them in danger, because there are no TAs because the TAs don’t want to teach in person, we see just how accommodating the institution is. (I won’t even speak of all the staff like janitors who’ve had to report to work this whole time, and who will get the shit end of the stick cleaning after everyone, because whoever thinks the elaborate cleaning requirements for students attending in person will be fulfilled by anyone seems never to have met any twenty-year-olds. (Has also never gone to my gym, where we were always supposed to wipe the floor and kickboxing bags after class, and no matter what class I attended, what time of day, 99% of dudes never cleaned after themselves, just got up and left after class, leaving the women to clean everything.)

But this is the pandemic, so everyone has been on high alert since March, stressed and worried about tuition and room/board money coming in (even though pretending it’s not about the money).

Even during normal summers, we are never left alone regarding the upcoming semester. Remember that faculty are not paid during the summer, except from research grants. Why these constant intrusions, making my blood pressure spike several times every day?

Is it the people who are on 12-month contracts wanting to show they’re earning their keep? Or is it a typical corporate power move, basically making sure no one ever thinks even for a little while that they have the right to any personal time whatsoever? Like the colleague who always emails with superficially important links on nights and weekends, ensuring we have no peace and we know he’s working really hard?

And don’t get me started on all the summer defenses. I have had more thesis proposals and defenses this pandemic summer than I have during most semesters. WTF is up with that? These are supposed to be one off, not “everyone, it’s summertime, let’s graduate”!


So, tl;dr: I’m starting this fall semester quite grumpy. I will be teaching in person. How’s everyone doing?


Bits and pieces of doing the job:

— Emailing with one program manager while working on a project report for another, from a different agency, and I feel a little like I am secretly juggling two significant others, nly instead of flirty texts we exchange graphs and Gannt charts and highlight slides and requests for revised budgets.

— One program manager is MIA for months on end, but when they’re on, they send out a flurry of emails and are super accessible for a brief period. So the other day I was emailing with them between 12 and 2 am. Yes, all of us involved in academic science are nuts. 

— I’m writing an evaluation letter for the promotion a candidate and want to make the letter as strong as possible. I look up the most highly cited papers and want to highlight the importance and originality of the contributions, and I realize that the papers, while technically fine, sound wishy-washy. The statements of work (in abstract, intro, conclusion) are all weak and equivocal. Reader, if a well-meaning evaluator cannot easily figure out why the hell these papers were written to being with, what’s new and important in them, then your bleary-eyed, attention-challenged colleagues will quickly dismiss your work. Learn how to write clear, concise, persuasive statements of work. What did you do, why did you do it, why should people care, and did you find anything of note/advance the state of the art in some way?

— Will I ever be senior enough not to constantly be assumed clueless in the reviews of my papers? Like, “Are the authors reeeeeeally sure what they say holds, because it doesn’t seem to me that it does, based on me flipping through this textbook.” Yes, we are fucking sure, because I have dozens of paper on the topic spanning nearly two decades. I know how to fucking recognize it.

— At least with papers, I can rebut the above comments. I cannot fight the presumption of incompetence in grant reviews.

— Is there a way to have a sabbatical that actually feels restful? I fear it’s not possible when you have a research group. The work never stops. Maybe you’re not teaching, but all the research supervision happens just as before, so you’re constantly tethered by the needs of the group. Even when I procrastinate, all the stuff I have to do for my students hangs over my head.

— I’m teaching in person this fall, in a gigantic classroom, under a face shield. Both I and the students will be expected to undertake extensive pre- and post-lecture cleaning of our work space. Should be just peachy.

— How is it that the society considers me old/useless/invisible, yet I still have two more decades till retirement? That’s two more decades of grant writing… Man, I better stop futzing around with short fiction and start writing best-seller novels.

How’ve you been, academic blogosphere? What’s new at the dawn of a new academic year? 

What’s in a Degree?

For my fiction writing, I use specialized search engines — Duotrope (paid) and The Submission Grinder (free) — where you can look up different magazines, acceptance rates, and all sorts of cool stats. The engines rely on user-reported information on acceptances and rejections (dates, whether personal or not, whether preceded by a hold, etc.). Each magazine entry has a list of recent responses (e.g., 21-day personalized rejection; 43-day acceptance). People with acceptances have the option to have their name listed (e.g., 43-day acceptance. Congratulations, Peggy!). Many people opt not to have anything listed; some have a nickname (squirrel), their first, or their full name. But there are a few who list their title (Dr Perry Mason). This practice strikes me as odd.

I chatted about it with one of my writer friends, who saw nothing wrong with it, as in “If you’ve got it, flaunt it” and asked if I listed PhD after my name in my faculty email. I said no, because everyone had one. (If anything, listing one’s endowed professorship or a high administrative position is what we academic nerds do as a show of force.)

Then it hit me: In my professional world, everyone does have a PhD, so much so that a PhD seems like not a big deal, almost a triviality, only the beginning point of a career and achievement. But it’s not trivial. It denotes an already remarkable level of achievement in one’s field of inquiry. A vast majority of people don’t have a PhD, nor do they know anyone who does. A PhD is a big deal. We should be proud of it. We shouldn’t hide it. But I always hide it, because people are weird around intellectuals. When people ask what I do, I say I work at the university. If they don’t probe further, I don’t volunteer. If they do, I say I am a professor or that I teach, and I see a shock and immediate re-classification of me from wherever I was to wherever university professors get mentally placed. I don’t have to say I have a PhD; I assume it’s implied, and its unspoken existence does make for an awkward dynamics for a moment, or a dozen.

In my fiction bio (it’s a 2–3-sentence blurb that follows a published piece), I make a vague reference to being a writer and a scientist, then list three places where I’ve published fiction, followed by website and social media links. I also publish a smattering of poetry, and in those bios I don’t even mention being a scientist at all, because, honestly, I’m a bit intimidated. So many poetry journals have mastheads filled with serious writers who hold MFAs, so I don’t want to draw attention to my decidedly non-MFA-holding impostor self. The MFA is fairly common among editors of literary short fiction, but not quite as prevalent as in poetry. In genre fiction, however, many (most?) writers and editors have another non-writerly vocation and associated degrees. English PhDs do show up in all three types of mastheads (poetry, short literary fiction, short genre fiction) but with a much lower frequency than MFAs. Among writers, I do know a handful (probably under ten) people who hold an MFA in addition to a doctorate of one kind or another (PhD or JD or MD). There are some highly accomplished people out there who make me feel like a complete slacker!

The writer friend from above said I should be flaunting my PhD and my theoretical and mathy background in my bios for genre fiction. I’m not so sure. I may have science cred, but that doesn’t mean my fiction doesn’t suck donkey balls. It feels like the more I flaunt my science credentials, the more I might antagonize the readers and editors with my layperson scribbling intrusion. Is this crazy?

It can be exhausting to feel like you’re always intruding. On the one hand, I choose to branch out into activities in which I am a total newbie. On the other hand, can I still be a newbie years into an activity, and, if not, how do I turn off this annoying impostor syndrome? (LOL That’s a trick question. I can’t.)

But I should at least be a little kinder toward the people who do list their credentials in their bios and publication announcement, unrelated to the writing pursuit as these credentials may be. Perhaps all they’re trying to do is raise their stock, give themselves some credibility, battle a crushing impostor syndrome.

In the meantime, it’s good to remember that having a PhD is great, that one should be proud of it as PhDs are not common in the general population, but that one’s title and expertise should be wielded with kindness and humility, because while it does means a high level of achievement in a small subfield, the world is vast and full of capable, talented people, and, in more areas than not, we’re all clueless newbs with plenty to learn.


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