Whimsical Fauna

Grab a Chair

Apparently, I am at that career stage where I get solicited (with increasing frequency) to apply for the position of department chair or department head at various institutions. I am wholly unsuited for such positions, not because I can’t figure out what people need or solve interpersonal and logistical problems, but because:

  • I cannot do it without it perturbing my inner equilibrium for longer than is healthy or prudent. I am probably worse than most when it comes to leaving other people’s bullshit at the office and not allowing it to affect my personal life, even when I know the bullshit isn’t about me at all.
  • I cannot stomach the requirement to kiss the a$$es of alumni and folks with deep pockets in other to milk them for donations. There are some people who excel at this and don’t seem to find it prohibitively distasteful; more power to them. A few such individuals are academics in STEM fields and make excellent upper-level administrators. Yours truly, alas, is not among these specimens.
  • I like many facets of the job I have now. I am really good at teaching and draw a great deal of satisfaction from it. I enjoy working with graduate students and thinking about cool new science. I like being an editor of technical journals (usually). I like talking science with colleagues. Based on what I see among my peers, it is hard to go back to being a regular faculty member after serving in a demanding administrative capacity.
  • Moving. The other day, Middle Boy said winter was his favorite season, which surprised and puzzled me for about five seconds, until I remembered that he was Midwest-born, and long, snowy winters feel natural because this place is his home. So, yeah. We’re staying put.

Blogosphere, anyone among you considering switching to administration? Why and why not?

No Rest for the Wicked Weekend

Blogosphere, do you work weekends? 

During the summer, I usually don’t. During the semester (winter break, too), I always do. There is just way too much going on and I simply need the weekends. I wish I didn’t, but I do. When I take a weekend completely off, usually I end up hopelessly backlogged and missing deadlines in the week ahead. 

When I am not in a proposal crunch, weekends are usually for: 

a) Assigning homework

b) Writing homework solutions (mostly relevant the first time I teach a new class, like this semester)

c) Grading homework (see a pattern here?)

d) Grading exams

e) Catching up on editorial duties (assigning reviewers, chasing reviewers, making decisions on manuscripts that came back from review)

f) Catching up on emails

g) Catching up on writing miscellaneous documents that fall under service (letters of recommendation or evaluation for tenure/promotions, reviews of people’s papers)

Blogosphere, do you work on the weekends? If yes, what do you do? If no, show us your ways, oh wise one!


From the Archives: Elementary, My Dear Xykademiqz

Originally appeared here. (Only this past January. Jesus, feels like eons ago.)

I chatted with DH today about our childhoods. Mine often feels like another life, or like it happened to someone else. Perhaps that’s how everyone feels.

As I wrote here and there on the blog, I had primary school (equivalent of elementary plus middle, 8 years total), the placement into which was solely based on geography. Then high school (4 years), which, during my time, involved light specialization (for example, mine was natural sciences, but there was also a parallel social sciences and humanities track in the same school that my BFF attended; my husband went to another school where his specialization was math and programming). Then, in college, one enrolled in a major right away and was pretty much railroaded to graduation. There were several tracks to choose from as upperclassmen, but, again, no course cherry-picking; you pick a track and the course sequence is fixed.

Because of this specialization, since high school I was surrounded, more or less, with people who were similarly academically minded. Today I thought of some of the people I went to elementary school with.

There were two siblings born under a year apart in my class in elementary and high school. I look them up sometimes, and they have done well, have BS degrees in math and mechanical engineering and work in their fields.

I also remember the kids who used to sit with me in the back row in physics lab (yes, we started having physics in 6th grade; twice a week; chemistry in 7th grade, twice a week; not too much math initially, but I asked Dad to teach me some trigonometry in 6th or 7th grade so I could do physics problems with inclined planes).  Anyway, each row in the lab had two long lab desks that sat three each. I was tall and was always relegated to sit in the back, usually with boys.

In physics, I sat with these two who were supposedly “bad” kids, but I never had issues with them. They were always nice to me and respectful of my intense nerdiness. (The “nice” girls were always way nastier than any “bad” boy.)

Years later, I heard one of the boys had spent time in prison for a robbery, and was at that point out, taking care of his kid, while his wife was still locked up. It seemed surreal. The other boy I always thought was very sweet, but he was a hell raiser who, in hindsight, might have simply had ADHD. I wonder what happened with him. Unfortunately, I only remember his nickname.

And that’s the thing, I don’t really remember most of the kids I went to elementary school with. I might remember the first or the last name, but not both. You might think it’s not a big deal, but we were together, in the same class, for eight years. I feel like I should remember them better.

I was a middle-middle-class kid. A lot of my classmates were from blue-collar families. A few were what even then I’d recognized as somewhat classy, coming from old money, having had highly educated parents and grandparents and probably great-grandparents, too. In contrast, my maternal grandma had four years of schooling; my dad had a BS and got a MS when I was older; my mom had an associate’s degree.

I’m easily googlable, so, on occasion, a very rare occasion, I get a “Hey, what’s up?” A few years ago, one girl from elementary school contacted me and we shared how many kids we each had and who we were in contact with from school (me: no one; her: about half a dozen people via Facebook), and then it fizzled. It always does. I know there have been reunions, from which I’m separated by one ocean and several decades. We’re mostly curiosities to each other now. Still, I hope the kids are all right.


From the Archives: Ponderable: People Are Different

Originally appeared here.

Apropos nothing, I remembered a post by a frugality/early-retirement blogger who is of some note in the early-retirement blogging community. She and her husband have achieved financial independence and are now homesteading somewhere in the Northeast.

What matters here is her post on when she knew she’d marry her husband. The pair dated in college. In their senior year, she was taking a women’s studies/feminism course that she really enjoyed, so she kept talking about it to her boyfriend with great excitement. Lo and behold, one day she showed up to class, only to find her boyfriend sitting in the audience, grinning. He had rearranged his senior-year schedule (he was majoring in a technical field, very different from her humanities major) in order to enroll in that class with his girlfriend; he did not speak to her about it first, he just did it.

She thought that was super romantic and showed her that he really listened to her when she effused about the course. They seem happy, so good for them!

In contrast, when I read her post, I thought her then boyfriend was being creepy and boundary-violating as all f*ck. When I was young, if my boyfriend had done that, I might not have broken up with him, because at the time I didn’t believe I had the right to many of the things I wanted or needed, including my own boundaries, but I know for a fact that I would’ve freaked out and felt very, very uncomfortable.  Today’s me, if I were that girl in college, would likely break up with the guy and drop the class.

It’s nice that the blogger’s boyfriend was interested in what the girlfriend had to say. But don’t freakin’ hijack her experience! Maybe that’s just me. Apparently, my creepy and boundary-violating is someone else’s romantic, committed, and paying attention. But I generally need a lot of space, seemingly more  than many people. DH gives me space, and I am really grateful for it.

Dear reader, what are some ways in which you feel that you are—at your core—different from many people around you? 


Aaaaaah! Been too busy today. No time for a long post, but likely tomorrow.

In the meantime, Twitter links!

And a pic of Josh Duhamel just because:


Time Flies: Blogging Changes Over Ten Plus Years

Reader asks:

Your posts from previous years have led me to some questions: How do you think your writing (on academia) has changed from when you started blogging? I’m sure changes in academia have affected your writing style and content, but are there any major differences you’ve noticed in your blogging, things like tone, length of posts, narrative, etc.?

This is a good question. The short answer is yes. Both have changed. 

I hadn’t looked at the old Academic Jungle posts in a long time, and when I stopped by to rummage through the archives there  (after having spent an embarrassingly long time trying to remember which gmail address that blog was associated with — I officially have way too many), I was struck by how strange the writing seemed. The topics, the tone. There were more earnestly goofy posts as well as more earnestly preachy posts. Like I really thought I was informing people of something important. This makes me feel both wistful (ah, the days of bright-eyed blogging) and condescending (ah, you stupid, misguided, naive child) toward my younger blogging self. But the tone is definitely different, in a way I could probably analyze in detail, but it’s November, and who’s got the time? 

Some of it is probably (or at least was) by design. I distinctly remember having started blogging in 2010 because I wanted to share hard-won wisdom with junior faculty. (I remember telling my husband I was thinking of starting blogging and him asking,  genuinely confused, “Who’s going to read that?”) Over time, as I got more senior as a faculty member, I both felt that those issues from early career moved further from my mind and that I’d already said what I had to say on most early-career topics. However, over the course of a long blogging career (10+ years — can you believe it?) readers come and go; most who read today didn’t back while I was still on Academic Jungle and would probably benefit from many of those topics being revisited. (Shameless plug: The best of my blogging 2010-2016 has been compiled into Academaze. Check it out!)

I do rant here on xykademiqz as I did on Academic Jungle, but the rants, too, have changed, or at least I think they have. I did get into a few kerfuffles early in my blogging career, which has affected my writing. Mostly I stay out of trouble these days, in part because I censor myself more, and in part because the academic blogosphere has all but vanished (actually, largely moved to Twitter, near as I can tell). As there aren’t many academic blogs anymore, this is now more of a private blogging space, with personal and academic topics. I think what I post these days are more opinion pieces than lectures. Hopefully I come across as less sanctimonious than before? But I definitely shy away from some topics I wouldn’t have avoided before. I often start writing and say ‘nah, I don’t have it in me right now to do this in a way that it needs to be done, so I don’t inadvertently step in some shit’. It’s easier to stick to more innocuous topics or just more personal ones. 

As for academia, maybe ten years isn’t long enough to note significant systemic changes, but maybe it is. We definitely have less admin support at the department level than when I just started out. I have a mountain of service, which has definitely ballooned over the past decade and not just because I had become more senior. We have service-happy dean and department chair, and it’s a serious drag on faculty time. Students are the same, adorable and wonderful and energizing for the most part. I’ve been steadily adding to the roster of different courses I teach, which keeps things interesting, if busy. Funding rates have progressively gotten worse and worse for single PIs and small teams, and chasing grants is the aspect of my job that fills me with utmost despair. 

What do you think, blogosphere? Those of you who’ve read my work awhile, do you think it’s changed (and not just in posting frequency)? Do you think academia has changed? Are there academic topics you wish I’d discuss but haven’t, or haven’t recently? 


From the Academic Jungle Archives: Probably Handy Fun

So I dug through my old posts over at the defunct Academic Jungle (*cough-cough* that electronic dust is killing my sinuses). 
This one from 2012 (!) makes for some fun Saturday content. Btw, Smurf is now 10 and is left-handed, like his oldest bro. 

Having kids, especially little ones, is a source of enormous joy and tremendous exhaustion. There are many activities that are not particularly fun for anyone involved (e.g. projectile vomiting and associated cleanup) or are fun for the kids, but not so much for the parent (e.g. watching Teletubbies yet again with the 3rd kid, making it roughly my 11,678th viewing. I hate Tinky Winky and Dipsy with the burning passion of a thousand suns. Lala is still cool, though.)

Surfing the web on my phone or simply thinking about work are my favorite passtimes during protracted mind-numbing activities. This morning, while I was nursing Baby Smurf but — alas! — did not have my phone handy, I started thinking about the fact that Baby Smurf seems like he might be left-handed, although it may be too soon to say with certainty. He usually likes to hold two things at the same time, one in each hand, but he is much more likely to drop an old object and pick up a new, more interesting one with his left hand. Our eldest son is a left-handed, our middle one right-handed. Of course, all this leads to some cute probability questions. [1]

Here is what we know: let’s say that 1 in 8 people are left-handed (quick googling puts the percentage between 8 and 15%, and I remember a few years ago and reading somewhere that it’s 1/8=12.5% , so let’s stick with that). [2]

1) What is the probability that a family with three children will have a left-handed child? (meaning at least one)

2) What is the probability that a family with three children will have exactly two left-handed children?

3) What is the probability that a family with three children will have (at least) two left-handed children?

4) What is the probability that someone’s first and third child will be left-handed? (The only assumption is that the person will in fact have at least 3 kids.)

5) If my first child is left-handed and my second child is right-handed, what is the probability that my third child will be left-handed?

6) (added this one a bit later) If my first child is left-handed, what is the probability that I will have (at least) another left-handed child out of three total?

Have fun!

(I will post the solution in a day or so, although I am sure we’ll have the correct answers before that.)

[1] I admit this post was inspired by this one at Bad Mom, Good Mom, found through a link at Cloud’s.
[2] As badmomgoodmom says in the comments to the original post, handedness is not a completely random trait. Here, however, I just wanted us to have some fun with probabilities, so let’s assume handedness is a discrete random variable, with values L and R having the probabilities of 1/8 and 7/8, respectively.

From the Archives: On Moving in Academia

Originally appeared here.


LTR asked: I’ve heard that men get outside offers all the time, but women rarely do, leading to huge discrepancies in pay and prestige at R1s that go all in on retention and poaching. At least that’s what our provost says. How does one solicit outside offers? Especially if one kind of wants/needs to leave…

Related: I’ve also seen people switch departments at various places I’ve been, usually from a dysfunctional one to a better one in an overlapping field. How does that happen? Dry appointment first?

Are these things different pre- and post-tenure?

I wrote about this a little bit a few years ago here. I know there were other posts, too, but I can’t be bothered to look now.

I am not sure that women get fewer offers than similar-quality men, but it may be that they don’t really advertise all the offers or jump to take advantage of them like men do.

A few years ago, I was on the merit review committee that went over all annual reports. I have seen a number of male faculty report as “outside offers” what I would never imagine of reporting—unofficial feelers from various institutions, where they basically throw it out there to see if you are at all amenable to moving. It would never even occur to me to mention it in an annual report unless I could document the interest (e.g., invitation to apply to a chair professorship or similar). Yet, some other people routinely mention these non-offer offers to powers that be in order to build the appearance of being a hot commodity. It does work. Deans and provosts seem to be very sensitive to a perception of being a flight risk.

There are certainly differences between hotshot and not-so-hot faculty, but I don’t think these split along gender lines. In fact, I’d say that a female superstar in a male-dominated field is likely to receive frequent offers to move. We have a couple of such women, and they do not lack attention. I don’t consider myself a superstar, yet I get pinged reasonably often, but I don’t want to make everyone spend weeks or months on my retention package when I never intended to move for real. But my department is quite proactive about showing people love preemptively (merit raises, professorships, etc.), so that definitely helps.

If you want to leave, it depends on seniority. Right after tenure is a great time to leave, especially if you’ve been very productive, as is anything before year four on the tenure track. Afterwards it gets harder, and effects of kids and house and family are more of a hindrance.

If you are junior (on the TT) and willing to move, apply, similar how you did the first time around. Ideally, with an invitation, but not necessarily. I see many applications from good second or third-year profs who want to upgrade or simply find a better match.

If you are close to tenure, and your record is not obviously awesome, some people might think you’re applying because you think you won’t get tenure. Not a great situation. But before year 4 on the TT and after tenure is generally OK. Even years 5-6 on the TT are OK if your record is strong, and some people apply to sweeten the deal or rush tenure at home. (I personally hate anyone who wastes everyone’s time to get a real, full offer as leverage, without ever seriously considering moving.)

After tenure, if junior, you can certainly still apply cold, but it’s always better to have an in through a trusted colleague. Use your network of colleagues and collaborators. Let them know informally that you are movable and would be interested if there were openings in your area. When you go to give talks, communicate your interest to the hosts. Most ‘feelers’ come when you go somewhere to give a talk. People will let you know if they hear something.

And never badmouth your current department. You can always say it’s not the right fit and you are looking for a better one, that you’d like more options for this or that. Generally, never cite a negative reason (e.g., things are bad) but instead a positive reason (e.g., you are looking for growth, improvement, opportunities).


Related: I’ve also seen people switch departments at various places I’ve been, usually from a dysfunctional one to a better one in an overlapping field. How does that happen? Dry appointment first?

I have not seen people switch tenure homes completely from being 100% in one to 100% in another one, but I have seen them be hired into something like a 25-75 position, then move to a 50-50 or 75-25 split in their duties over the course of years. I would assume it’s possible to start by having an engaged, enthusiastic zero-time appointment, which then becomes a nonzero percentage, i.e., includes some real commitment to teach or do service. The new department would be willing to give up a faculty line or its fraction for you, whom you already have on campus, instead of bringing in someone else. I think it’s doable, but has the potential to sour the relationships between departments, so how lightly one has to tread really depends on local politics. The good news is that people are often willing to do more to help assistant professors in dysfunctional situations than they are for senior folks.

If I were to summarize, it would be that you have to use your network to gather information informally, feel the lay of the land, and then proceed quickly and as dispassionately as you can.

Blogosphere, what do you say?