Crammers

Yesterday, I looked up a former classmate of mine, B. We were in high school together; I haven’t really thought about her since we graduated. She is now a pediatrician back in my home country.

When we were in high school, she was what we used to call (loosely translated) a “crammer.” A crammer would be someone who crams, someone who works really hard at memorization, who just stuffs information into their head, without necessarily asking why or how any of it fits together.

The system I went through was different than in the US. In high school, you’d choose a profile (mine was math and natural sciences), and once you’d chosen a profile, your curriculum was set. In math and physics, we had tests, but we also worked on the board in front of the class. I distinctly remember her (and several other people, of both genders) really struggling to set up and solve problems. I don’t think she was dumb, but she put in enormous amounts of effort and still could never get an A in either math or physics, even though she had all other As.  I also remember a couple of other people whose GPAs were not very  high, but who were good at reasoning through math or physics problems.

Why did I think of B?

Because I had the first midterm a couple of days ago in my large undergraduate class. Usually, I hold all-day office hours before the exam, so I got to see a number of students and work through problems with them. And a few reminded me of B struggling on the board.

I am not sure what to do for these kids. They all came in with high GPAs and were among the best students in their high schools, but  a good 60% should not be in this major or any physical science major at all. Yet, here they are, and they are not going anywhere, because their tuition dollars are coveted. I have been trying to figure out how to describe what I see, and it’s not easy. It is a perfect storm of being sloppy, having inadequate math background despite having cleared all the calculus courses (whenever I see people trying to take the curl of a scalar field, or they tell me that the divergence of a vector field is a vector field, I die a little inside), and just not being willing or able to think things through. All this manifests itself as overarching shallowness. I see these students trying to just somehow quickly tunnel through problems, pulling out equations from the book or memory that make no sense while on the surface seem like they do (i.e., they involve many of the right letters), but the actual thinking is completely absent from the process. There are no words that I say more often in office hours than, “Stop. Don’t rush. Think. What is going on here?” I spend a lot of time in class and discussion setting up each problem: drawing, describing the framework out loud, explaining what each step means and and how it translates to math, then solving the resulting equations. I know I try my best and I assume most of my colleagues in the courses before mine do their best, too. And for many students it all clicks and they do great. But for 60% it doesn’t seem to, almost as if they don’t want it to. They come to office hours not to learn, but to do well on the test. I post practice problems and they don’t even attempt to do any of those unless they have solutions. These kids just speed through everything and just want to be done. As if they deliberately don’t want to retain anything, or as if turning on the brain requires too much energy.

(An aside: It blows my mind how bad people are at drawing. I am not talking about becoming a comic-book artist here. I am talking about sketching simple geometric objects better than my 5-year-old: a circle or an ellipse; a disc, a cylinder, a sphere; a cube — oh, my God, the crimes against art committed on the cube! Very few students can sketch what looks even remotely like a cube in perspective, rather than like something  that Picasso vomited. A surprisingly high fraction never resort to sketching anything, even though, in many courses, visualization is immensely beneficial to  solving problems.)

Our colleagues in the humanities often argue that the humanities courses are necessary in order to instill critical thinking. I feel like we in STEM really try to do the same, but with the help of math. I don’t think we are particularly successful; it’s just that our STEM crammers come out with degrees that on the surface look more employable, even though these degrees — sadly — don’t guarantee that their holders can actually apply reasoning to problems within their discipline.

Painels

I have to stop reviewing other people’s stuff.

Raining criticism on people really bums me out. I am in the middle of a panel (yes, again) and just feeling desperate. (It doesn’t help that I am a double token: token woman and token theorist on an experimental panel). Of the batch of the proposals I reviewed, most were really very good: well written, engaging, feasible. But, during discussion, you find that one person’s feasible is another person’s incremental. One person’s exciting and transformative and worth taking a chance on is another person’s unconvincing and needing a third mountain of preliminary data. Ripping apart good proposals so we could justify funding only 15% is a freakin’ slaughter of science. NSF funds good science; it also doesn’t fund probably 3x as much science that’s just as good.

One panelist didn’t give anyone more than a G (E-excellent; V- very good; G – good; F – fair; P – poor) and gave several people a P. G already completely eliminates a proposal from the running. Nobody should get a P, that’s just downright mean; P basically coveys that the reviewer thought you were a total moron. There were several proposals that started with scores like E/V, V, G, P. Seriously, the same proposal is both excellent and poor?

The worst thing about NSF peer review in particular is that the reviewers raise all these issues that may or may not hold water, and you have no opportunity to defend yourself. Even if the reviewer is very wrong, unless someone who understands that is on the panel, was assigned your proposal, and is also not a know-it-all a$$hole, the unfounded criticism stands and sinks a good proposal.

I want to read papers and enjoy them and admire people’s cool ideas. I am tired of hunting for things not said, or tangents not addressed; I am tired of hearing of the minor flaws others hunted down and blew up into fatal weaknesses. I want to believe that most people are serious scientists, and if they have ideas for which they painstakingly collected preliminary data and wrote a proposal on, that they are usually serious, willing, and able to to do the work.

It also makes me desperate in the face of writing more proposals of my own. Somehow, whatever I write, however I write it, it’s just not quite there. People say my proposals are good and that I just have to keep resubmitting, that the successful people wait it out, but what’s the point? If you don’t get funded the first 2-3 times, the field moves on. Formerly competitive proposals get stale.

I’m gonna get some beer at the hotel restaurant, bring it to my room, and work on panel summaries.

Seriously Sulking Superbowl Sunday, sans Superbowl

As I mentioned before, I am in a subfield with very, very few women. My general field seems not to be quite so bad (even though it’s overall well under 20% women); I have female colleagues in the department whose subfields seem to have more women and be generally supportive of women. Mine seems to be really, really weird. I often complain here that men this or men that, but the reality is that often I don’t know if something is wrong with me individually or if it’s a male/female difference, because there are no women other than me that I could compare with. (I complain about men in my profession a lot, but just in case it’s not clear, let me state for the record: I don’t hate men; quite the contrary. I love men. I love men as much as you could imagine any straight woman who’s also a mom to three boys would love men (that’s a lot, by the way). Which is also part of the reason why all these men, wherever I turn, drive me freakin’ bananas.)

In my smallest subfield (defined as the 300-person community, whose conference I am on the advisory board of and never miss), I am the only senior woman with any sway. There is one woman who’s more senior, but unfortunately for reasons I can’t really discuss here, she’s not held in very high regard and is largely ignored, even though she’s a very capable woman who’s done great work. I try to boost her signal whenever I can, but it’s not enough. There are no junior female group leaders or even anyone on the way to becoming one. The European and Asian groups are all male and they look at me like I’d sprouted a second head if I hint that there’s something wrong with a 50-person sausage-fest research group. The subfield’s footprint in the US is not very large, so there are no other women here either, other than the occasional grad student or postdoc, all of whom eventually vanish.

***

I am slated to be on a grant-review panel in the near future. The panel is on the experimental arm of one of the topics I work on. Every single proposal in the roster is written by one or more men. Every single panelist but me is a man. Maybe I should introduce myself with “Hi, I am Xykademiqz from the University of New Caprica, and I am here to be the token woman for this panel.”

***

However, what prompted this post has to do with papers.

Whenever I submit to Prestigious Society Letters, this is usually what I get:

Referee B, Round 1: There’s nothing wrong with the paper, it’s interesting and correct, I’m just not feelin’ it. It’s just not hot enough or cool enough for PSL. Send it to Reputable Society Journal or More Applied Letters instead. 

I revise, clarify, try to make my case better, bend over backwards to address every single bit of minutiae. I may request an additional or different referee, if I feel one has been particularly hostile.

Referee B, Round 2: Nah. Nice try. Still not feelin’ it.

Because I am not a fan of wasting time, I occasionally do but usually don’t dispute this decision, and I transfer the paper to Reputable Society Journal or More Applied Letters. But, generally, all referees have to be swooning over my paper for it to make it into PSL; if even one of them is unimpressed, it’s a no-go. I have certainly seen the same editor send a paper by a heavy hitter (it’s always a man, of course) to as many referees as needed until one is finally impressed, even though I and another referee both were not, and then have the paper published.

***

A few months ago, a student and I submitted a paper to a journal and one of the reports was just nasty. It basically called us idiots and mistakenly pointed out how we didn’t know how to properly label our own system’s parts. It did point out one correct thing, which is that we claimed was one novel aspect was actually done somewhere we didn’t notice. I felt so ashamed! I am always really very careful that we have a very comprehensive review of the literature, that all the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed, so I was so embarrassed and I felt like I had failed my student that I had allowed us to submit a manuscript in which that one thing was overlooked.

In contrast, about two months ago, two European men wrote a paper and submitted it to PSL. Basically, what they are doing is solving very, very accurately an approximate model; their super-accurate solution is a total overkill, because their model has well-known limits of validity that they don’t seem to appreciate, so all the added accuracy is totally unnecessary. They already published a couple of high-profile papers with the same general idea. Now they wanted to introduce a phenomenon that comes from the overkill solution, gave the phenomenon and some of it aspects specific names, and made a big fuss about it. The problem is that the phenomenon they talk about already exists within a much more broadly applicable and rigorous (and thus complicated) theoretical framework, it already has well-known names for its parts, and the whole thing has been around for over half a century and is definitely not what you would call obscure. They showed a blatant lack of knowledge about the general framework of the field and the applicability of their model. I wrote a collegial but essentially scathing review, detailing the above. If I received such a review, I would retreat with my tail between my legs, and would likely be licking my wounds for a while. I would not attempt to resubmit to PSL at all, or possibly anywhere.

But I now see that they have resubmitted to this high-profile journal (the paper is back with the editors). The authors might have asked for a new reviewer; we’ll see if I get it back. I am dying to see what they could have possibly argued against in my report. I met one of the authors once, and he sure has an enormous ego. I often wish I could have such a giant ego. Where could I get myself one? A giant ego is like a huge marshmallow buffer around you, protecting all of your breakables from the people who try to throw metaphorical punches at you.

I am always polite to referees, and try to address every issue they raised, even if I don’t agree. I am also always impressed when people take the issues seriously and respond carefully and professionally when I am the referee. But I would be lying if I said that I’d never received ridiculous displays of chest-thumping, especially from male scientists with huge egos, in the form of a rebuttal letter. Sometimes I think, “Why do editors even forward this as a rebuttal? This is completely unprofessional.” I have also received equally unprofessional reports myself, and I guarantee that I have never written such a nasty, vicious, dismissive report as I occasionally receive.

I wonder how many people are just assholes (in which case, why do we collectively let them get away with it?) versus how many get this macho need to dress down a paper written by a woman, who seem to get off on showing me my place.

(I can’t even think how often the same thing happens in panel reviews. I dare not think, because I have two proposals in review, and will write another one that’s due in a month.)

***

Sorry I am such a downer on the blog these days, but this is what’s been on my mind. I suppose this is how you lose women from science. It’s the women like me,  who we’ve been doing this for years, and who stop to ask, “Why the f*ck am I doing this? This is stupid, unfair, and has nothing to do with the quality of science. And why is the world full of chest-thumping a$$holes?” This $hit is like radiation poisoning; it compounds, until you feel so sick that you really have no wish to keep going.

I have loved you, science, for so long, but you don’t really love me back. You usually tolerate me around as long as I don’t make much noise, but when I piss you off — the uppity bitch that I am — because I apply for a grant or send a paper to a journal above my station, you slap me, spit on me, and give me a cold shoulder.

Xyk the Sub

Dear readers, I have a question for you. But first, a bit of information.

This week, I am substituting for a colleague who’s away at a conference and teaching his own large undergrad course. I teach this course often, so lecturing is no big deal. I subbed for the same colleague in the same course a few years ago, when he taught it last.

This colleague is… Not the department’s most coveted teacher. He means well and he prepares, he’s just… Not a very effective communicator. That’s a well-known fact in the department, and we don’t bend over backwards to have him teach undergraduate courses, but he still has to on occasion (and it really makes no sense to effectively reward poor classroom performance by having him teach only graduate courses or undergrad electives). Anyway, this is all to say that I wasn’t particularly surprised that a few students came to ask me, “Could you please keep teaching this course for the rest of the semester?” Flattering, yes, but I obviously cannot, and they know it. I did tell them they could come ask me questions about the course if they needed help.

I have developed an extensive set of lecture notes for that course, and I am pretty sure the colleague uses them to prepare for his lectures (he has all my materials). The last time I subbed for him, I offered the students my lecture notes, they jumped on the offer, so I posted the notes online and gave them a link. The colleague said thanks, but thereafter many students stopped coming to class for him, and I think he blamed it on them having my lecture notes.

From what the students communicated to me this week, they don’t actually have much material to study from. While I am pretty sure the colleague  uses a standard textbook, it seems many students are confused as to what the text should be or if there even is one. I mentioned my notes in class, but then I asked the colleague if he would be okay with me giving them the notes, and he said he’d rather I didn’t. So I didn’t.

But now a couple of students approached me about the notes, and one just asked about them in an email.

This is my question. What do I tell the student who explicitly asked for the notes in an email?

On the one hand, these students pay tuition and I think it’s everyone’s duty to help them succeed as best they can. The students happen to have been exposed to me and would benefit from something that’s easy for me to give away (the notes). However, the colleague said no, so I am not posting them for everyone to see. But I should answer something to the student asking for the notes explicitly.

The options are (not all of them are serious, obviously):
a) send the student a pdf; b) give him a hard copy of the notes; c) either a or b, along with swearing the student to secrecy with a blood oath; d) tell the student I can’t because his instructor said not to; e) tell him I am sorry but I can’t and that the instructor has the notes, and if he feels the class should have them, he’ll post them; f) ignore the question; g) ignore the colleague’s wishes and just give everyone the notes.

I cannot imagine that I would say, to someone offering students an additional resource, “No, please don’t,” unless I thought the source was scientifically misleading or incorrect (which my notes are not). The more resources, the better, especially if they are inexpensive (don’t get me started on predatory publishers, churning new editions of $200 textbooks every two years even though they contain nothing but 200-year-old physics, thereby preventing the students from getting used copies or reselling their own; I know it’s business, but the greed is just disgusting).

What say you, blogosphere?

Spring Semester, Service, and Sports

I declined to review a paper for a Glam Mag after having already accepted, because they’d been bugging me every two days to submit my report. “OMG if you don’t do it in 24 hours we will have to find someone else”!!! So go find someone else and stop annoying me. FFS. As if we are all sitting on our hands here.

***

I have to review 1-2 full proposals per day, every day, for the next two weeks. Don’t ask.

***

I am teaching a large undergraduate required class with no TA support. Again. The undergrads are adorable, but there are ~100 of them. I will die grading exams.

***

I was offered a pretty major professional service role. It’s one that would allow me to have a say in how large amounts of money are to be spent; one that would lead to a multiyear commitment to serve, and would be about a month of additional work per year. It’s an honor to be offered this opportunity, and part of me wants to take it, but most of me is just so exasperated at the thought of having even more work on my plate… All the time away from my kids, even less time for research… Then my husband, who is really supportive of my ever-increasing and ever-more-demanding and varied service, aptly put it, “It might be a good experience to have under your belt, but will be full of pretentious [non-expletive qualifier removed to preserve ambiguity] men… Will you enjoy this?” No. I most definitely will not. And at the end of the day, this is the main reason I won’t be taking this service role. I don’t think I can take such a high concentration of pretentious [non-expletive qualifier] men, talking down at me/ignoring me/generally making me work very hard to be taken seriously over multiple years… Not when I can just say no.

***

I have no wind in my feminist sails left, at least not right now. This coming summer, at least two of the conferences I am involved with have all-male speaker rosters. Sometimes I wait to see if anyone brings up the lack of women among speakers; nobody ever does, because I am the only woman on the advisory board or the program committee. What’s even worse is that, even when I do mention the lack of women speakers, nothing happens anyway.

I am one thinly spread token woman, partaking in way more service than a person should. I cannot be the sole force ensuring diversity across multiple professional communities.

I just want to be left the hell alone and not have to deal with yet another email thread or a conference room chock full of dudes whom I am supposed to gently nudge into thinking of a female colleague, any female colleague, who might be worthy of inviting.

This is a point at which I simply don’t expect anything more.

Somebody else can be the token for a while.

***

It is hard to convince myself that I need to write even better grant proposals when I routinely see all-male proposal rosters when I review. If I am the only woman in a proposal roster, guess how many panelists will feel that the proposal of this unnatural candidate absolutely has to be among the 1 or 2 that get funded? Exactly as many as can think of a woman invited speaker without prodding.

***

Apropos nothing: I love watching Middle Boy’s basketball and swim practices, and he really enjoys having me there. I love watching him and his friends play together as part of a league, and I yell and cheer like the most obnoxious of those dads who pretend to coach from the sidelines. I love watching Eldest and his teammates swim. I don’t care that my kids win, but I care that they give it their all and have fun. But mostly I love to watch them as it cheers me up; it lifts my gloom and brings me joy. Kids’ sports are awesome, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

On Conflict

The past few weeks have been challenging; the difficulties have had to do with dealing with people. I haven’t wronged anyone, but I have been unable to keep quiet after someone has wronged me, my family, or a professional group I am affiliated with. Predictably, conflict ensued.

In this society, and especially if you are female, everyone expects you to just swallow whatever crap they dish out in the name of peace. If you don’t and confront them instead over their their stupid, insensitive, or downright manipulative behavior, people are generally shocked that there is a reaction in the first place; they are used to getting away with social transgressions big and small by relying on other people’s conflict aversion.

The thing is, when someone is an a$$ towards me, whether they meant it or not, whether they had a bad day/month/toothache or another legitimate reason, they make me do work that I don’t want to do. In order to keep the peace and avoid conflict, I have to find a way to absorb the $hit. It saps my energy; it detracts from my work; it requires me to do the emotional labor of processing their a$$holishness.

No. If you crap on me or upset me, I will make sure that you don’t have a great day either. Next time, hopefully you will tread lightly. Yes, I know you will think I am a crazy bitch/difficult/hormonal. But I actually think we will get along much better once I have shown you some teeth.

Why is keeping the peace so paramount? Because nothing good comes from conflict, or at least so say several of my (Midwestern-born, church-going) politically savvy colleagues. I beg to disagree. Me knowing that I am not a mute trash receptacle into which people get to dump their steaming piles of $hit is a good thing that comes from conflict. Why should I be concerned about the well-being and comfort of the people who so clearly hold my own well-being and comfort in very low regard?

***

I had a few interactions with a very intense (female) colleague. They did rub me the wrong way and I have tried to figure out why. I like the colleague socially, so these negative feelings in the professional context were something new.

The problem is the following. She and another colleague have been thinking and working on something for a while (years) and are well versed in and very passionate about the topic. They want a very specific thing implemented as part of university policy and have even drafted some verbiage to that effect. They discussed the procedure with the higher-ups, who referred them to my committee. The problem is that the colleague came to me with this essentially finished product, whose value and necessity she felt should be self-evident to me, and basically pushed that it be discussed and adopted. My reaction (without the expletives) was, “WTF is going on? Where is this coming from, what the hell is all this, why is any of this necessary or urgent, and why exactly do you expect me to push it through my committee so quickly?” She seemed to be taken aback that I didn’t immediately see the greatness of the proposal; she seemed almost offended. The moral of the story is that, just because something is near or dear to your heart, you cannot expect other people to understand or care about it, let alone drop everything to follow your agenda. And, to be honest, having done a bit too much of your homework (and waving it in the face of the uninitiated) makes you seem pushy.

The epilogue is that I slowed the ball a little and had us talk several times over several weeks, so I’d have the time to figure out for myself it this is something my committee should be dealing with and how much jurisdiction we had, looked into some precedents and past practices, and I was eventually confident to distribute needed information for consideration by my committee. This also prompted us on the committee to look into the bigger picture and we will be making certain other changes to the policy alongside the ones the colleague proposed. The vote will happen, but not until the end of the semester. At schools with faculty governance, things do move, but probably not as fast as some people would like.