Author: xykademiqz

Purple balls are awesome. When made out of glass, that is.


Recently, I lamented not submitting a polished single-PI proposal and instead going with what I felt wasn’t a particularly strong collaborative proposal as my one and only allowed submission within the annual unsolicited proposal window for a particular NSF program. I have several outstanding proposals to the NSF; of those, this collaborative proposals is the one I had the lowest expectations for; I really didn’t think it would get funded, for it was far from perfect.

It turns out, it has been recommended for funding! Shows you what I know.

On the one hand, it’s always nice to get a new grant. Money is money, even if ridiculously tight (in part because of the overall small budget, and in part because I got stiffed by collaborator). It covers one graduate student as a research assistant and little else. I have something like three days of summer salary in the budget, which is really only there to absorb the inevitable hikes in the fringe benefits rate associated with the student stipend and maybe cover part of the student travel to a single conference. I might also be able to purchase a few reams of paper on top of that before all the money is out.

On the other hand, NSF seems to like me when I play a supporting role to an experimentalist, but not very much when I seek money on my own. It could be that my ideas suck, but those same ideas seem to do just fine as long as they are packaged as secondary to experiment. It probably doesn’t hurt that the experimentalists are boys. I’d be angry if I weren’t so sleepy.

In any case, endless polishing of text is obviously not necessary for funding.


Who Teaches?

I have a junior colleague (JC) who’s just phoning it in when it comes to teaching. JC’s been very successful in raising funds, writing grants, and advising students. JC travels a lot and is making themselves known. JC’s teaching evaluations are below average, but JC doesn’t really care. JC considers teaching a tax to be paid for the privilege of having a faculty position.

The thing is, JC is not stupid. JC knows that there’s no way they will be denied tenure with anemic teaching as long as they bring in the money and publish. I have been involved in tenure review at several levels at my school, and that’s the bottom line — unless you are routinely not showing up for class or otherwise completely shirking your duties, nobody will deny tenure to a research-active faculty member. You can be boring as all hell in the lecture, you can have 2 hrs of office hours a week during a time when no one can show up, you can be late grading exams or posting problem solutions, you can be inaccessible via email, you can get poor evaluations, and you will still likely get tenure.

What’s really infuriating is that this is still a university and people pay good money to come here and attend classes. When did it become okay to focus on raising grants over everything else? It’s as if people don’t consider it important to even pay lip service to teaching any more. When did it become okay to forget that we at public schools exist for the students — we are here to educate! It’s the teaching mission that makes a college or a university, not shining buildings and overhead. Remove grants? Still an academic institution. Remove students? Not so much.

I spoke with my chair recently, and basically he said that we simply had to make peace with the fact that some people will never teach well and that others who do will have to put in more than their share of effort. The problem is that the people who don’t teach well or much end up with more time for research and are thus given more respect by the upper administration and generally better career prospects (because research is portable, teaching not too much). So my chair basically says it’s inevitable that there will be Tier 1 faculty who focus on research, and Tier 2 faculty will pick up the slack after Tier 1 faculty simply because they happen to teach well, care about teaching, and are not completely selfish. Nobody asked Tier 2s if they want to be the maid for Tier 1s, doing the “dirty” unwanted work; people who teach well at research schools certainly want to do research and have not signed up to be second-class department citizens.

We should collectively be ashamed of ourselves that it’s okay to not want to do well a core, truly CORE part of the job, as long as you bring in the grants. It’s all about the grants, it’s all about the money, it’s not even about writing papers based on the work done with that money; it really is just about the money. That admins are allowed to insist, with a straight face and unchallenged by anyone, that the value of a faculty member lies in bringing in grants is completely perverted.

Why and how did we allow this to become the norm?

Counting Down to the End of the Semester

As I get older, I don’t have the work stamina that I used to. However, I can still work 8, 10, 12 hours per day on technical stuff (writing papers or  proposals) and always come home fired up and ready for more. But working with people completely drains me and I can’t keep my eyes open. Today, after a day of face time, with even some drama in it, I napped in a chair for 2 hours right after dinner.

I cannot wait for this academic year to be over, and with it several nightmarish service assignments.

I am experiencing friction with an admin. I hadn’t interacted with said admin until recently, but now I seem to do it with some regularity in the context of a serice role. After a few encounters, I don’t really have much good to say about them. I’d say the admin is overall not a positive presence. They are quite annoyed at the strong faculty-governance history at the institution and the resulting system of checks and balances that stands in the way of them wielding much more power over personnel issues than they currently do. At the same time, the admin is kind of a downer — even when things with the administrative unit are going well, and they objectively are, the admin seems to always scold everyone; they focus on how we should be doing more or different things, and how we’re not where we are supposed to be yet. I know for a fact that some junior faculty are getting bummed out, because if you heard the admin, you’d think we’re some sort of perpetually failing, backward place, and that’s not really true at all.

If I ever had any shred of curiosity about going into administration, it’s all gone now. People are the worst, and smart people can be insufferable egotists. If I ever undergo research deadwoodification, I will gladly teach more rather than ever take the administrative route (although I understand people often do it not necessarily for the love of administration, but for the not-insignificant pay bump). I know I occasionally whine and complain about some students in my classes, but overall I enjoy teaching and like my students. I don’t begrudge office hours or email help or other time spent on teaching. However, I do very much resent being scolded and condescended to by a power-hungry admin. Why do we bring in these external people who have no understanding of the institution, no respect for the good long-standing practices, and want to mold us into wherever it is they came from? This is a great institution that has a lot to be proud of; we don’t need to become anyone else’s carbon copy.

PSA: Big Head Leads to Pain in the Neck

A student has been scoring in the 60s and 70s in a class where the average score on the tests is in the mid-70s. He’s not failing, but he won’t be getting a great grade, either.

He doesn’t come to class or office hours. He submits homework only intermittently. He tells me that he’s too busy with projects for other classes. He also tells me, verbatim, “… I focus more on higher levels of abstraction, which makes it harder for me to work with low-level [material].”

He’s blowing off my course; fine. But this student is full of $hit, and I hope he knows it. Otherwise, I worry about him, for this big head of his will result in a pain in the neck. There’s no such thing as being too cool for low-level stuff before you’ve actually shown mastery of said low-level stuff. Nobody who’s ever mastered anything would buy this, and I can’t believe that’s what he’s selling.


Pfft PPT

Creating PPT presentations is on my mind. (I don’t use PPTs in class, so this is not about lectures with PPTs.)

Recently, I have witnessed a midcareer/senior academic who should be at the top of their game (mid-to-late 50s, lots of accolades on the CV) deliver an abysmally bad talk during a seminar in the context of possibly bringing this person into a leadership position at our institution. I cannot describe just how bad the presentation was; it was embarrassing to watch. It was so bad that those who advocated for interviewing this person should (and do) feel very ashamed of themselves. And all the students in the audience will now lose six months of training on how to create presentations, because they will rightly ask, “If this senior person can do it, why can’t I?” All the figures looked like $hit; when my first-year graduate students make figures like these, they get a stern talking-to and repeated instructions on what not to do. Figures need to have axis labels and legible numbers on axes. When you have 5 scattered points on  graph (sans error bars, mind you), that doesn’t mean you should draw a freakin’ wiggly B-spline through all of them and call it an experimental curve. Your figures should not be falling off the goddamn slide like it’s the edge of a cliff. Do not show slide after slide of awful-looking experimental plots, taking us down the rabbit hole of your thought process, without actually ever telling us why any of us should give a $hit. People left the talk confused and irritated. There is no way this person is fit for a leadership position when they cannot make a PPT presentation. (Or maybe they just didn’t want the job at all and were self-sabotaging. Seriously, it was baaaaaawd.)

In unrelated news, there is this conference I am going to for the first time; it has a strong industrial presence. They have already annoyed me with a mandatory paper and the need to have it checked by my “industrial sponsor.” Now they want a presentation uploaded in advance. Today I find that they have a freakin’ template they want us to use, and the stupid template contains a mandatory stupid purpose slide (WTF is that?) and a mandatory stupid outline slide which serves no purpose (you know, like the stupid purpose slide) if it’s completely generic, like what these people want. Also, they specify font types and sizes and even allowed colors!

Then again, when  senior people give mind-blowingly awful presentations, maybe detailed templates created by anally retentive professional conference organizers are are exactly what we all need.

Written Praise

Often, as I read the external letters of evaluation written by experts in support of the tenure cases of stellar junior faculty, I wish these young professors knew how highly the senior colleagues thought of their work. Some of these letters are full of genuine praise and admiration.

If you are an academic, it’s likely that you sometimes — perhaps often? — fell insecure about your professional standing. How could you not? Everyone around you is smart and successful, and the competition for funds and top publications is fierce. There is very little, if any, direct affirmation; you only ever get it indirectly through accepted papers, citations, invitations to give talks, or an occasional award. I bet it would feel really good to read, black on white, how much your professional peers and elders admire and respect you.