Month: November 2022

What People Need

I had a post with random Twitter levity planned, but then I saw this tweet:

By the way, it isn’t really a Robin Williams quote, even though he did say the words (see here).

But it connected with several articles and blog posts and some acquaintance-related developments, all of which coalesced to a single theme. People don’t pay attention to other people. People take other people for granted, especially those whom they supposedly care about. Communication doesn’t mean you assume things are fine (read: live in denial) until someone submits a notarized written complaint. If you wait for people to be blunt with you, it’s probably too late. Communication  implies you are aware of the person you care about, that you can sense their distress, their reluctance, their pain. You pay attention to subtle cues.

A person I know IRL was very vocal about the excellent communication in their relationship. Yet, I could name several instances where they appeared totally clueless about how their actions were likely affecting their significant other. I tried to gently hint that they might’ve acted carelessly; as expected, they didn’t appreciate this input, and insisted that their parent would’ve said something. Then they got broken up with, without ever having been given much beyond empty platitudes as the reason. So much for excellent communication.

Many people are finely attuned to the needs of their children. Why can’t they extend the same courtesy to the adults in their lives?

I often get back to this poignant piece of nonfiction, “The Crane Wife” in The Paris Review. It reminds us it’s not that hard to know what other people need.

Fictional Impostor

A few days ago, reader DS asked over email:

What’s your perspective, now, on imposter syndrome?

The timing is interesting, because I recently got shortlisted for a short-fiction award (I can now officially say I am this-award-nominated author). I looked at all the other people on the list, many of whom are way more accomplished than me (Bram Stoker awardees and such), and I felt — you guessed it — a surge of conviction that I had no business being on that list, and that someone would figure it out and cross me off. In other words, impostor syndrome. I started rationalizing my appearance on this list by things that have nothing to do with the quality of the story chosen. It turns out, one can feel like an impostor in any endeavor, and instead of knitting or doing something else that’s noncompetitive, I chose writing and publishing fiction, and now I have yet another Axis of Insecurity along which I can feel like I am not good enough.

There are plenty of women on this list, so it’s not about the likes of me being underrepresented, as is the case in my technical field. Rather, it has to do with me, personally, feeling like I am not good enough to make the selection and appear in that particular company.

We often talk about impostor syndrome as a systemic issue, and that’s certainly a big issue. When you are underrepresented in a competitive field, it exacerbates the feeling that you don’t belong. But individual people feeling insecure about their own competence is at the core of impostor syndrome, and beneath it is a fundamental, deep lack of belief that what you do matter.

I wrote about imposter syndrome frequently in the past, for example, here. and here. There are more posts, probably a dozen or so  total, which you can find by searching the blog for the word impostor (there’s a search box, not too visible on the desktop, but it’s in the dark gray line of the horizontal top menu).

I am happy to report that, when it comes to my profession, my impostor syndrome has greatly abated. I own my seniority and actually feel (rather than only know intellectually) that I am accomplished. For the most part, I am treated as someone who is established — when invited to serve on panels, to write various evaluation letters, to review papers. Colleagues ask for my opinion and advice. Students listen to what I have to say. In my late 40s, I’m at the top of my professional game, but, more importantly, I  feel that I am at the top of my game.

As I  wrote recently, it’s not all smooth. There are always new douches who expect me to convince them of my competence. But what has changed is that my gut response is, ‘I am fucking senior. I don’t need to convince you of shit. I can just drop this nonsense and leave, and it will truly be your loss.’ And then I actually believe it.

I don’t know what it is that finally made me feel like I am where I should be and doing what I should be. Probably a combination of things. Among them, for sure, is having been able to successfully propel junior people. Helping people get first-author publications, receive PhDs, and get good jobs on the strength of my professional connections; heling junior faculty make tenure; helping junior collaborators fashion white papers and proposals from something ho-hum into something exciting and fundable.

To me, all the objective markers of competence reached a critical mass and finally managed to convince me that I am no longer an impostor. Granted, all this took the better part of two decades, but better late than never, and, most importantly, it did eventually happen.

I see male faculty who are junior to me and who’ve never had to waste energy on battling impostor syndrome. That’s a lot of energy that they can use more productively. But, as annoying and energy-wasting as impostor syndrome may be, I also feel it keeps a person humble. And, in my case, I think it also makes me better attuned to those who might be fighting their own insecurities, and makes me more generous when offering support and praise.

Now I have a new endeavor, and impostor syndrome flares up again. I look at all the established authors while I feel like someone who belongs at the kiddie table. There are writers who started around the same time as me, but who write much more and have already gotten novels and movie deals and big awards. It’s hard not to feel like I really have no business being there, with my one story every few weeks, working around my family and demanding day job, tackling a novel over school breaks. And the worst thing is that I feel greedy. Yes, you read it correctly — greedy. Like all these folks hustling for writing success are giving it their all. I already have a career — a well-paid, competitive, successful career — so who am I to write? Should I not leave it to serious writers? Am I taking oxygen and publication space and award-shortlist space from those who are more worthy? (Yes, this sounds exactly like a woman professor feeling she’s snatched a faculty position from underneath the men who are somehow entitled to it. )

(My husband, of course, is a man lucky not to have ever been afflicted with impostor syndrome. He finds my worries about greediness ludicrous, and generally encourages me to pursue each and every one of my hobbies and interests, saying that being awesome at more than one thing is, well, awesome, and that I don’t owe anyone anything, certainly not to step away so they could have their chance. Of course he makes sense. He always makes sense. I know all this intellectually, but it’s hard to feel the truth of it at my core.)

I think some people are particularly susceptible to impostor syndrome; it has to do with general insecurity. (Some other people don’t feel they should stop doing a thing even in the face of ample evidence to the contrary, so yeah.) But women, in particular, are socialized to not take up space, to not ask for consideration, and instead to make sure everyone else’s needs and wants are met first. I know this is how I often feel, and it takes a lot of energy to keep overriding it every single day. It has to do with a deep feeling that what we are and what we want is simply not very important, and that others have the right to be noticed and appreciates before us, and all this absolutely comes from family and early education. Sadly, these traits are absolute murder for a woman who, as an adult, tries to achieve anything professionally in the modern US society, where one must project confidence and self-promote, both very much traits praised in boys but not in girls. Of course things feel unnatural and unwelcoming when you have to play on a field where all your strengths are weaknesses, and where your systematically extinguished natural impulses suddenly seem to be prime strengths.

Honestly, this topic makes me weary.

I wish I were a more confident person at my core. I am not. All the confidence I have is hard won, and supported by abundant objective evidence. The bad news is that some people feel like they’re on top of the world, no matter what, and most things are easier for them. The good news is that insecurity can make you  more tenacious and resilient, and also more compassionate as a person and mentor, and insecurity doesn’t actually have to stave off real achievement. And, at least in my case, enough objective achievement in my work did move the needle on my dial of self-worth. Maybe it will happen again some day with my fiction, too.

Wise and worldly readers, let me know what you think about impostor syndrome and confidence, in general. 

Book Recommendations

Pyrope asked for book recommendations, and I am happy to oblige. 

I have Kindle Unlimited and also buy a vast majority of books online, but here are some recently enjoyed paperbacks. 

Collections of flash (stories of up to 1000 words) and short stories: 

StoryCollections

Horror novellas: 

HorrorNovellas

Collections of poems: 

Poems

I also read plenty of sci-fi. For example, anything by Becky Chambers is an automatic purchase for me. I recently enjoyed these sci-fi books on Kindle (I also borrow a lot through my library’s Overdrive):  

The Rush's Edge Stringers

As for fantasy, I don’t really like high/epic fantasy or sword and sorcery (the genres that most people associate with fantasy), but I do love dark fantasy, fabulism, and urban fantasy. I can never read enough about paranormal detectives. Seriously. I would take those stories intravenously.   

Finally, after over thirty years of actively avoiding to read even a lick of romance because of thinking it’s too lowbrow (I fully admit  to having been a misguided literary snob), this veritable middle-aged horndog (hornbitch?) has seen the light and has been devouring scorching-hot romance (mostly contemporary or mixed with other genres like suspense, paranormal, horror, etc.).  I do post some recommendations in the comments over at nicoleandmaggie’s, where both the hosts and the readership are amenable, and I am happy to do so here if there is interest. I don’t want to “bush ambush” unsuspecting readers who are here solely for academic topics, at least not without a good reason/explicit interest from readers. 

Blogosphere, what are you reading these days? What are your favorite genres? Let’s talk books!

Sunday Miscellany

  • I usually give myself Saturday to not do work. But this Sunday tackled me with a vengeance as soon as I got up and knocked out some teeth. OK, maybe I’m being too dramatic, but I’ve put in a 10-hour workday today and I’m feeling very, very stabby. I am too old to not have weekends.
  • Aging sucks. My ass and my jawline are never again gonna be as taut as they were when I was 20, when I should’ve taken great pride in them instead of beating myself up for not being emaciated. But with age also comes a dwindling supply of fucks, and that, my friends, is a major perk. Young people have way too many fucks to give, and fucks are very heavy to carry around.
  • I’d been a member of a sci-fi book club for several years, since before the pandemic. Giving it time and all, but I just never managed to fit in. I think there are people there who like me well enough, but those that don’t really send me loud “Fuck off” vibes, or some other flavor of off-putting vibes, but they’re definitely sending me something and whatever it is, it’s not welcoming. The last however many times (a vast majority of times, actually) I came back from book club feeling down. It’s a weird environment with a definite hierarchy. If you like a book others didn’t, you feel stupid. If you didn’t like something others did, better tone down your displeasure. People argue pretty aggressively, but it’s hierarchical with the same people having the floor most of the time. And, to be honest, I read a ton, across genres, and I dislike the suggested books more often than not. Plus I’m an actual practicing scientist, so I don’t get hung up on the science in the books being perfectly accurate. I live with science; it’s hard and tedious and highly constraining. As someone once said, I like my fiction with a lot of fiction. Most others in the group are not scientists and are very particular about the science being correct to the point that all the other things that make books resonate with people seem irrelevant. I’ve been struggling with leaving the club for a long time, thinking about it every month but always  avoiding it because it feels permanent, and then yesterday I just did. I removed myself from the Google group, so I won’t be getting emails anymore, and that will be the end of that. My husband is relieved because I won’t subject him to the monthly “Should I? Will I?” I should and I did. So long and thanks for all the fish.
  • When it comes to writerly pursuits, I get much more engagement and better interactions and just overall a more wholesome vibe at Mastodon, where I literally have an order of magnitude fewer followers than on Twitter. It’s a really nice and comfy there, I highly recommend it, especially if you can get on a server with a bunch of nice friends.

Sup, blogosphere? How is this November treating you thus far? 

Musky Avicide and a PSA

It looks like Twitter is on its last legs. Apparently the offices are locked for the weekend, and employees have resigned en masse

I will miss the hellsite. Twitter is like sanitary pads with wings: once you start using them, you can’t imagine how you ever lived without them (yet you did, most of your teenage years, you did). I took to Twitter reluctantly after seven years of pretty much only blogging. I’ve meet some cool people there. Mastodon is nice, but just very different. Feels pretty lonely. You can’t really stumble upon interesting conversations they way you can on Twitter. I dread moving to Instagram, the other location many writers are flocking to.

Ugh. Just ugh. 

——

Anyway, in less differently depressing news: 

\begin{Ranty PSA}

If you share a passing interaction with someone and notice they have a foreign accent, do not, I repeat, DO NOT, ask them where they are from.

It doesn’t matter how curious or fascinated by accents you are. Leave them alone. If you care at all about their comfort, you will swallow your curiosity and treat them as you would anyone local until the brief interaction ends.

Why? Because they keep getting asked that question all the fucking time and it’s alienating and aggravating. 

Exhibit A (6 pm yesterday): 
This was a 5-min parent-teacher conference that my husband and I attended over Zoom. Within 2 min, the teacher asked us where we were from and proceeded to talk about how she’d never traveled there but would love to, and asked if it was closer than country A or country B. My husband humored her, because he’s way nicer than I am. However, because of this bullshit I didn’t have time to ask some questions about the kid’s AP exam.

Exhibit B (9:30 am today):
I am at a car dealership, dropping off my car for maintenance. I am talking to the service guy. Another random guy passes by (I’m not even talking to him).

Random Guy: So where are you from?

Me: *tries to decide whether or not to spill blood on the pristine dealership floors* I’ve been here awhile. I’m from here now.

RG: But I hear you! (Congrats, RG, you possess ears)

Me: *mumbles murderously* Yeah, well.

RG: *grins* Welcome to America!

He welcomed me to America. I’ve been here 23 years. I am a citizen. Tell me this isn’t meant to be fucking alienating.

Having an accent is not quite like having a huge scar across your face, because most people stare, but don’t dare ask how you got it.

Having an accent is like being perpetually pregnant. For the rest of your life people will ask you if you’re having a boy or a girl,  then proceed to touch your belly.

No, it’s not the same as someone from Ohio asking someone from Louisiana where they’re from.

If you care at all about the comfort of people who were clearly not born in the US, just fucking leave them alone. Your curiosity doesn’t have the right to their life story when you share a 10-second interaction.

\end{Ranty PSA}

——

What else is new, blogosphere? What’s going on with you?

Cool Chair in the Hot Seat

lyra211 asked here:
How about your what-to-do/what-not-to-do for new chairs? (I am becoming chair next summer and therefore it’s on my mind a lot.)

I’m going to be of very limited help here, since I haven’t been chair, but I know for a fact that several of the regular readers have been or currently are chair. Folks, please share your wisdom with lyra211!

I’ve personally worked under four different chairs since I became faculty. Here are some of the issues that I’ve gleaned from my cushy vantage point of being a regular, albeit unusually grumpy, member of the faculty. I think everything I suggest below is doable, at least in principle:

Figure out how often you need to have faculty and/or tenured-faculty meetings. Always have an agenda. Be merciless (merciless!) about staying on time and on point. I’ve had chairs who kept us for two hours every week and chairs who managed to get stuff done in an hour every two weeks. The department still ran, so… Some things are clearly not as necessary as they seem.

Figure out what things absolutely have to happen in terms of service and what don’t. Cut whatever service roles you can cut. Get good people on the service tasks that absolutely have to happen.

Excellent working relationship with the staff is necessary. Find a way to show them your appreciation that isn’t yet another burden on their time (e.g., monthly lunch with them might be appreciated, but likely isn’t; a gift card probably is, or a lunch they can eat on their own if they so choose).

Student recruitment and retention are extremely important. See if you can improve things there. We are there for the students first and foremost. They are what makes a university a university.

Depending on your levels of extroversion, you may tolerate face time well, or extremely poorly. Being chair is a marathon, not a sprint, so you have to keep up both your strength and your will to live. If you don’t tolerate face time too well, minimize the shit out of it. Whatever can be an email, make an email. Whatever can be a monthly instead of a weekly meeting, make it so.

A lot of things are supposed to come in front of the executive committee (all tenured professors) that technically wouldn’t have to come in front of it and can be handled by a smaller subcommittee or someone in a vice chair capacity. Use that. Delegate authority to handle stuff to capable colleagues or committees. The delegation process itself might have to go in front the executive committee, but it will be worth it.

People will take out all sorts of shit on you when you are chair, doubly (triply so) if you are a woman. Find a way to dissociate from that garbage because most of the time it isn’t really about you at all (although people sure like to transfer the blame to you, especially when they are the real culprit). As a wise woman who excels in a leadership position once said, remember that their lashing out is a reflection of some underlying stress that usually has little to do with you. If you can have this stuff roll off your back and leave the stresses of work at work, you will likely thrive in the chair position. If you take it all personally (as I know I would), you will be miserable. Don’t be like me!

Your research will take a hit. It might be a big hit. You might not mind the hit since you’ve been itching to do something new anyway. Or you might resent the hit and look forward to not being chair anymore. If the latter, try to stay afloat, but don’t beat yourself up. You won’t be able to publish as much as a regular faculty member, but as long as you’re not completely out of  students, money, and ideas, you will bounce back. Consider it a research hibernation of sorts. You’re not dead, just waiting for spring.

If you are an extrovert, or an introvert with good interpersonal skills and acting abilities who can mimic an extrovert, and you are effective at working with donors and alumni and bringing money to your department, college, and university, you will be absolutely beloved by the higher-ups, and in turn they will have an easier time swallowing whatever else (other than more hard  money) you need for your department.

Readers who’ve been or are currently serving as department chair, please share your nuggets of leadership wisdom with lyra211!

Profanity-laden Post on Collaboration

So I might be exiting a collaboration to protect my postdoc and my own peace of mind. It’s a collaboration of about ten people across several institutions. It came together based on joint interests, but the postdoc and I will quit as soon as the current paper is accepted. I have my own funding (thank gourd). My postdoc is a capable woman and no shrinking violet, but she gets piled on whenever I don’t attend collaboration meetings, and pretty much even when I do, although to a lesser extent because I take some of the heat and can also deescalate some. Plus, the most aggressive people are probably infinitesimally less aggressive when I am there; I don’t allow them to interrupt me as she does out deference, and I talk over them if they talk over me. Still, after every meeting I am winded and exhausted, like I’ve just run a few miles.

It’s not a fun environment. Things have gotten to the point of no return upon the joining of a new junior faculty (male) who, perhaps due to his cultural background, seems particularly hostile toward my postdoc and, to a lesser extent, me.

And I am so fucking tired having to handle assholes in kid gloves.

I pulled out of a grant-review panel a few months ago when I found out I would again serve with a combative jerk with whom I had promised myself I would never serve again.

I will pull out of a collaboration because I don’t want my postdoc dreading every meeting, feeling rattled each time she attends, and I don’t need to be walking into a meeting with a machete to cut through the bullshit flying from every direction.

The thing is, most of the men in the meetings are completely silent. Do they not see what’s happening? Do they think the uppity  women deserve it? Do they not wanna say something to deescalate these clearly tense and uncomfortable exchanges? Do they not notice anything? How the hell are people so oblivious? They probably just don’t care.

And, of course, it will be “women are too difficult to work with” again. 🙄

Fuck this, seriously. Thank fuck I am not dependent on them for the funds and can just walk away.

Bullets of Ego

  • Remember months (years?) ago when Pete Davidson dated Ariana Grande (Why do I even know about this? Social media, that’s why), which popularized the term “big dick energy” (BDE) to denote a person who is quietly confident (because they know they’re packin’) and doesn’t have to rub their qualities (ahem) in everyone’s face. Apparently, BDE is perceived subliminally and is very attractive. Someone being all up in your face with their perceived awesomeness, trying to get you to acknowledge them, is said to have “small dick energy.”
  • I remember the movie “The Social Network,” where Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend tells him something along the lines of, “You think people don’t like you because you are a nerd. But actually people don’t like you because you’re an asshole.”
  • Anyway, these days I am thinking about how it would be really nice if there were more BDE people in academia. People who are competent and confident, but not jerks about it. They go about their business, doing their work, advising students, being colleagues, and not having to measure dicks against others at every turn. Not have to constantly show they’re the smartest person in every room. Not have to put people down with no good reason.
  • By extension, I’d like it to not be automatically assumed that, just because someone is kind and calm, they aren’t competent or confident, or just because someone is supportive and helpful, they aren’t an ambitious. I wish people stopped assuming outward self-confidence were a proxy for competence. Haven’t we learned anything from 2016 — 2020?
  • I’ve been interviewing prospective students, and there are a couple who are confident. Very confident. Very, very confident. So confident they are really obnoxious about it. I am sure they were told about having to be boastful in the US, and it’s true in the sense that self-promotion is much more overt and expected in the US than elsewhere in the world, but self-promotion is a fine skill and it’s very easy to land on the side of annoying. So annoying that it will likely disqualify them from admission into my group, because people with outsize egos are exhausting to work with. But such students are brilliant, you might say. Not brilliant enough to justify them being as exasperating they usually are.
  • In a multi-PI collaboration, a brand new male assistant professor who joins the collaboration late is automatically afforded respect. I have to battle with a male PhD student of another PI, a student who is writing his first paper, about technical details pertaining to my group’s part of the work, about the text we contributed, about everything. Every detail is a struggle. (You don’t want to even know how my female postdoc gets piled on when I don’t attend the collaboration meeting.) Being a female professor is a little like being queer, in that you have come out over and over and over again, to everyone individually, only in the case of a female professor it’s having to convince people of your competence, over and over and over again, even people twenty years your junior who should assume you know something based on seniority alone, but they never do.
  • This shit is so exhausting.