Random Bits of Academia

In recent years, our enrollments have been increasing, which I suppose is good for the department and the college. However — and I don’t know if this is a pandemic effect, or the effect of us enrolling students who aren’t as prepared as we need them to be — the skills of students in basic math have been steadily decreasing at all levels, from required undergraduate courses to graduate-level ones. At the undergraduate level, what I mean by declining skills is that, in this very math-heavy major, students are not fluent in basic algebra (multiplying and dividing fractions, factorizing polynomials, canceling out terms on opposite sides of the fraction line and/or when multiplying fractions, being able to graph simple functions without a calculator). Let’s not even mention the single- and multivariable calculus they supposedly had classes on and that I really need them to know for the courses I teach, but, alas, they don’t.

I do end up teaching on the fly the things my students should know but don’t, but this lack of proficiency in math continues to be the main stumbling block for a great many of them. They can’t work with advanced concepts because fairly low-level math takes up all their mental CPU cycles. It’s like trying to write an essay in a English when you have to look up the spelling of even simple, commonly used words.

I was recently reminded how little the quality of a grant proposal and/or the scores received correlate with fundability. I got a grant funded by the NSF in one division with lower scores and IMHO with worse writing than the unfunded grant in another division (i.e., the unfunded grant had higher scores and was IMHO better written). The unfunded grant got funded by another agency, so I’m not exactly drowning in tears here, and I had a really really good year overall, but it’s good to occasionally remind myself that:
a) So much of getting a grant funded is a crapshoot, and I am glad it worked out for me this time, but it also could have not worked out, and I should never forget that
b) Putting your heart, soul, and/or sense of self-worth into any one proposal is a recipe for misery.  Exciting and well-written proposals often don’t get funded, sometimes repeatedly, and sometimes so many times that you have to shelve those ideas, even though you’re excited about them and certain great science would come out of them. Hastily thrown-together proposals sometimes do get funded, presumably based on pure luck with the panel composition and/or the genuine pull of an excellent new idea, presented for the first time and thus infused with a childlike excitement that has not yet been squashed by repeated rejections. (Truly, there is a lightness to brand new proposals that is absent from those that have been smacked around a few times. You can recognize the latter by the stiffness of prose, the defensive tone in the writing. They seldom review well.)

Write proposals. Write many proposals. As long as they are solid, they have a chance. Polishing to perfection doesn’t hurt, but it’s far from a guarantee of funding. You have to keep slinging those grant-proposal  spaghetti against the funding-agency walls.

The lockdowns and online schooling are behind us, and a new year of tenure and promotions is before us. On a related early-fall occasion, from the mouth of an administrator came words that should surprise no one, yet, somehow still managed to surprise me. We were reminded to look at merit, and, upon the mention of the pandemic, we were told that, yes, there were Covid extensions for everyone, but some people were able to “get organized” and write more papers and proposals during the pandemic, while others saw their productivity plummet, and we should take that into account while mapping out the future of our institution. I wanted to yell and scream that the difference between those two types of people wasn’t organization, but that the first kind most likely had no or very few caregiving obligations and apparently no physical or mental health struggles, while the other, “lesser” faculty might have had health struggles and/or were taking care of the kids, the meritorious significant others, their own ailing parents or in-laws, while likely also serving as a sounding board for students with physical or mental-health issues. For the supposedly merit-challenged, I would like some actual fucking acknowledgement where it counts for tenure and promotion and raises, rather than the empty pandemic platitudes that have apparently already been forgotten. Even with all the good things feminism has done, we are nowhere near women getting the respect, consideration, and compensation they deserve for always carrying the society on their fucking backs.


  1. I’ve had to remind people on P&T committees that we’re not supposed to count covid teaching evaluations (which affected, say, people who taught online vs. in person or required masks or got sick or…). Really we just shouldn’t have had teaching evaluations available to the students, or shouldn’t have recorded them or something. None of this, don’t worry about your evals we won’t count them, and then forgetting to remind committees about that.

    Agreed on the math skills, though mine have gotten worst at before-Algebra stuff, and not just fractions.

  2. Thank you for your encouragement! I’m about to submit my 4th grant of the year. Maybe this time it will stick? I asked for covid extensions in 2021 and was told no, so I am fully aware that 8 years from now when my tenure clock expires exactly nobody will give a toss that I moved here in the middle of the pandemic, causing me to lose a year of my life. Oh well. I’ll be 53 then, so maybe I won’t care as much anymore.

  3. We are nowhere near equal respect, consideration, compensation. And some days it seems like we are sliding back. I feel like we are just around the corner from the admin saying that women with caregiving responsibilities shouldn’t be professors, since they can’t devote their full attention to their jobs. Maybe women should take less stressful lecturer positions. Or women could take on more service duties to make up for their lack of research productivity! (I’m being sarcastic, of course.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s