Navel, Meet Myers and Briggs (Part 1)

I have so much work to do, but this pair of posts is something that I absolutely have to write, so here we are.

Not that I shield my long-suffering readership from my all-too-frequent sightseeing excursions into my own navel, but this might be even weirder (also potentially more uplifting) than the usual fare. And it’s a two-parter.

I don’t remember feeling like I didn’t fit anywhere when I was a kid. I probably should’ve, but didn’t, or at least it didn’t bother me too much. Even as a kid I was what I would call ‘an acquired taste.’ I wasn’t popular and I felt that, as far as social graces were concerned, there were all these rules that other kids had internalized in daycare but I never had, as I had been cared for by my grandma before starting school, but I was a kid generally at peace with myself. I liked what I liked; I was very good at academics and competed in science and math; I also played sports in high school, and while I wasn’t popular or anything, I truly never cared about that anyway. I felt that the things I had going for me were generally good things, things that made me stand out in a good way.

But throughout most of my adulthood, I have been feeling that I am not how I am supposed to be, that I don’t fit in, and that everything I have achieved is not because of my strengths but by some sort of miracle and in spite of my numerous and overwhelming weaknesses. Why I feel this way I do not know, but the feeling has been growing over time, over the past twenty years. Perhaps it’s because I am now middle-aged, or because I live in a country where I didn’t grow up (although as I hit 18 years of living in the US that seems like an increasingly lame excuse), or because I do the job that I do (macho field; very competitive; relentless criticism and rejections; women few and far between), or because of the prevalence of social media and my reluctant but increasing participation in them… But yes, I’ve been feeling ever more that all that makes me me is a collection of maladaptive traits and that I have been doing reasonably well in life by sheer luck and despite of myself, because how I am couldn’t possibly produce anyone who’s capable of achieving anything.

In great part, the reason I feel like I am some kind of freak is that all the women with whom I tend to identify (highly educated and professionally successful women) in my life and even many I meet online seem to be absolutely nothing like me. Absolutely nothing like me. I am like the bizarro-universe version of them. This includes several female colleagues who are held up as role models of female excellence in my and related fields.

What brought this up, you ask?

I love The SHU Box blog because SHU seems like a really lovely, kind, patient person, and she has a beautiful family. I love seeing the pics of the kids growing up and all the fun they have. [Another one I love is Academomia; Becca (the mom/author of Academomia) is a hilarious writer.]

There are some other blogs that are connected to SHU’s but that I just can’t follow (such as Laura Vanderkam‘s or Lag Liv). I am sure the women behind these blogs are nice people, and they have lovely and large families, but their blogs are very much not for the likes of me. I understand these are curated online personas, but every post on these just makes me feel ugly, fat, uncombed, friendless, stupid, and generally a disorganized pathetic excuse for a woman and a mother. Again, not their authors’ fault, but this is the effect they have on me, so I don’t read them, other than on occasions when I am really in the mood for some quality self-loathing.

But SHU’s blog has a different tone, which has melted my Grinch heart, so I generally find myself cheering her and her family on from the sidelines (I don’t comment there often).

One aspect of SHU’s blog that I find fascinating is that she is a master planner and list maker. She has a well-developed set of algorithms and beautiful stationery for making lists of various levels and planning all aspects of her life, personal and professional. (She has a planner Instagram account, but I can’t find the link. Also a work-life balance podcast. I don’t follow these, though, but do check them out.)

I find SHU’s planning posts fascinating in an alien sort of way. This modus operandi is very, very far from mine. I have tried various planning exercises in the past and they only end up making me extremely  anxious. They don’t help me get organized or relieve pressure; instead, they make me feel like my whole body is covered in poison ivy and I need to get out of my own skin.

I have always thought that I’m a freak because normal adults plan this way, and that I am simply self-indulgent and hopelessly immature.

And then for some reason I did the Myers-Briggs personality test (and this wasn’t even the first time in my life that I’ve done it, but I always forget what I get). I did this one ; there are others. It turned out I was an INTP(-T) and I felt that the explanation of the personality traits really captured a lot about my approach to life, both the professional and the personal. I’m not a freak! I have a legitimate personality type, albeit relatively rare: only 3% of the population (also here), but nonuniform between the sexes: 4.8% men but only 1.7% women — I guess it’s not surprising that I feel like a freak? I mean this half in jest; I know these tests are not really scientific, but it did make me feel quite a bit better in the moment. I am embarrassed to say this, because I am a forty-four-year-old woman and I should by now know myself and the world and everything else, really, as well as I ever will, but there you have it: a Myers-Briggs personality test made me feel understood and OK in a way that the I haven’t been able to get from the real-life crowd around me in a very long time. Not a freak, just an INTP(-T). I will take it.

I did the test again today so I’d get a screen shot. Behold! I believe the propensity for making lists would be encapsulated under “Tactics.” When you see how strong my P is, it becomes clear that I am comically unlikely to be a list maker.


to be continued


One reason for the rising job disillusionment among us academics is that administration keeps gaslighting us. They want us to eat up clearly illogical, bullshit explanations for their maneuvers, when the following simple explanation is really behind the vast majority of them:

Whenever something is being pushed relentlessly, regardless of pretext, the real reason is that someone has decided to cut costs or divert funds from the fulfillment of our core missions. 

That’s it. End of story. Whenever some bullshit makes no sense, this is the real reason that people don’t want to talk about (they might if you press hard, really hard).

This is also one of the big reasons why I am an opponent of the flipped classroom.  (Disclaimer: I’m not saying it can’t be done right, but it’s being done far too broadly and far too badly, and when it’s done badly it’s worse than a traditional class gone badly. Also, disciplines differ; schools differ. I am talking about mine.) There’s a colleague who’s a real flipped-classroom zealot, but then his ‘flipped students’ get into my follow-on course and they don’t know anything. For courses with a lot of physics, the students need to be taught how to set up problems, and then use math to solve them. None of the students were taught that in the flipped class, because learning how to solve problems — which is the only thing that counts, none of the ‘I know the concepts’ bullshit: you either know the concepts well enough to apply them to problems or you don’t actually know them — requires learning from an expert who shows you how to set up and solve problems, step-by-step, with plenty of opportunity to ask questions and interrupt, and then also have humans check how you set up problems and how you solved them (also known as grading).

When, at the end of the day, my classes (traditional lecture, with plenty of homework, many office hours, and a discussion section) produces far better students for the follow-on classes than the flipped equivalent, I finally get to hear the real reason: We are facing increasing enrollments and to serve more students without an increase in the teaching-assistant budget or splitting courses into sections, the only way is to go all electronic. That way, you prerecord lecture nuggets, have everything done electronically (including grading). A single instructor, assisted by perhaps one (or none) graduate TA, and a whole horde of (note!) inexpensive undergraduate student hourlies can serve hundreds of students, where serve = walk around in case people have questions. Let’s repeat: hundreds of students with one instructor, at most one TA, and a whole bunch of ultracheap undergrads acting as helpers… With prerecorded lectures and all-electronic assessment. Let’s not forget that, for all this goodness, students are paying ever-increasing tuition. (Funny story: One undergrad student hourly in my zealot colleague’s undergraduate flipped course, who was chosen presumably because they did really well in that class, ended up getting a C in my follow-on course. What a helper this student must have been!)

Grading and giving actual human feedback on hundreds of exams is hard. Teaching large courses takes up a tremendous amount of time. But being there and putting in face time and sweat equity — both on the part of the student and the instructor — is the only way. Smaller classes are better — I have been advocating for splitting these ballooning classes into smaller sections, but my pleas have been falling on deaf ears… It was doable 20 years ago, but now it’s somehow not. It’s likely not cost-effective. If I am overworked, I’ve been told that I should flip the classroom and generally shut the fuck up.

Well, there’s something I’d like to flip, that’s for sure, and it ain’t the goddamn classroom.

This all comes on the heels of replacing an excellent course management system by one that is vastly inferior, campus wide. Why? Blahblahblah. “It has a better user demo.” WTF? Who cares about demos? These things are all easy to use, and the superior system is actually so intuitive that it didn’t need a demo at all. The new one misses important features, and, ironically, diehard classroom flippers cannot port most of their assignments between the new and old platforms (insert onomatopoeia of Schadenfreude here). None of the cited reasons for what happened makes sense… Except, of course, that someone managed to cut cost and/or line someone else’s pockets with the change of the course management system.

Some time ago, we all got new phones as the analog phone lines were discontinued (there still have to be some analog phones left in labs for safety reasons) and everyone moved to VoIP. It’s a giant pointless undertaking, because so few people actually use their office phones for anything any more.  I have had an extended absence greeting for years that says, “You won’t be able to leave a message here. If you need to get a hold of me, send an email.” The vast majority of my colleagues and I use email or Skype for all communications; if I actually want someone to call me, I give them my cell number, because I am in and out of the office so much. Now we all get these useless new phones, a massive investment marginally more useful than getting new fax machines (which we didn’t get, thank heavens). This is money simply down the drain. Why didn’t we do something useful with this money? Like hire more staff? More TAs? Buy freaking desks and chairs for graduate students? Because whoever manages money has no interest in what the faculty actually need, or, more nefariously, knows exactly what the faculty need and instead chooses to fritter money away on expensive stupidities. Someone’s pockets got lined up on this, I can smell it.

There are also extensive renovations in the building, which would be fine if we hadn’t done equally extensive renovations just a few years ago. Because the exact color of the walls is absolutely critical for student learning. If anything, it would only make sense if having the whole goddamn campus color coordinated is likely to affect the students’ subconscious in a way that makes them more likely to donate large sums of money later in life. Which I bet someone somewhere did a study on and showed to be true.

We have 1/3 of the department staff that we had when I joined. Student coordinators, who used to know every student, have now been consolidated at the college level. They are not even in the building and most of us don’t know when they’re hired or fired or who’s to be asked for a problem with a student or to do something about classroom assignments, because all these people are sequestered under the pretense of efficiency, but it’s really cutting costs by reducing the staff that actually supports the core mission, with a side benefit (or perhaps the central benefit) being the loss of actual ties between faculty and staff, which leads to reduced understanding and empathy, and increasing animosity.

I feel for the students whose families pay through the nose for the education. I feel for the bare-bones, overworked staff who actually support the core mission — teaching and research. I feel for us faculty, as these small defeats, these small humiliations, these instances of gaslighting where we’re told that something makes sense but it really doesn’t for anyone who really cares about the students — we are here for the students; this is a goddamn university; has everyone forgotten it? — add up to a fabric of our careers at these formerly grand state schools, a fabric that’s full of holes and smells rotten.

High Maintenance

Whenever I teach large lower-level courses, I have at least one. Occasionally more, but one for sure, and it’s usually just the one.

The student who requires more mental real-estate than the rest of the giant class put together. 

The one this semester isn’t too bad; he’s not as demanding as some I had in the past, but it’s only week three… We might be in for a long semester.

Over a month before the semester starts, the student informs me he will miss the first class just because and could I send him the materials; I do, to which he complains they are last offering’s materials, and could he have this year’s (they don’t yet exist, kid). Also, when will the exams be, so he can plan his travel (FFS kid, it’s over a month till the semester starts).

Upon learning when the exams will be, the student asks that I accommodate his religious observance for one of the midterm exams, which sure, I will do it because it’s required, but it doesn’t make me delighted as the class is giant and I already have people needing extra time and/or a small testing room and whatnot. The university just wants us to go along with these accommodations without giving a shit as to whose time goes into it, or where these accommodations take place, or that humans cannot be in multiple places at once. But alright.

Then the semester starts and the student is somehow the only one who cannot upload his homework files using the online course management system and I need to worry about keeping track of his emailed materials. No one else in class has any issues with the system.

Then the kid can’t sit with the rest of the class in the large classroom, he has to pull in a desk from elsewhere so he can sit very close to the board. (I’m not sure he’s following all that well, based on the questions he asks. He hasn’t been to any office hours, though.)

Then the student just has to travel home on Thursday and miss the Friday lecture (it’s week three of the semester and it’s not a holiday; maybe someone’s sick or there’s another good reason, but it seems to be just because). Could I send him all the materials? How will he know what he missed? (Kid, you have course notes, you have the book, you have the syllabus, I write on the course website what we cover. What I say in class is what I say in class, that’s why we have lectures that you shouldn’t miss. Not sure what else to tell you — get someone’s notes.)

Any one of these is not a big deal, but together they paint a picture of someone who’s quite high maintenance.

I wonder what happens to these kids as they join the workforce.  I can’t imagine the ‘real world’ will have much patience with myriad requests for exceptions.

On Membership in Professional Societies

Show of hands: How many academics actually consider professional-society memberships to be useful?

I recently renewed my memberships of two professional societies. They were not cheap.

For one of the societies, I do not remember ever having had a real use for the membership. Ever. I understand that for people outside academia these memberships perhaps provide a way to stay current with the technical literature, but for this particular society I fully admit that I renew because sometime in the next few years I plan to go up for fellow, which is expected of a reputable academic in my department and at peer institutions. I have done service for the society, again mostly to help with the eventual fellowship application. I don’t like to publish in their journals (slow and don’t have high impact factors). I engaged with them in the past (the year Smurf was born) about the conference I was organizing, but they did not make anything better, easier, or cheaper — quite the contrary. Further involvement of the society would’ve resulted in vastly higher conference registration fees and far too much of a trade-show feel, both of which I wanted to avoid. So never again.

For the second one, my main reason for renewing is, also, that I eventually plan on applying for elevation to fellow. However, I am also more engaged with this society, as I like their journals; I both publish in them and review for them often, but I could do that just as well without the membership, if we’re being honest. The membership does offer benefits for the attendance of certain meetings, including a massive annual one, but far less now than when I was junior. The membership costs less than for the first society, so I don’t get quite as grumpy when the time comes to renew.

Overall, I keep renewing grudgingly every year because it is expected, but I don’t actually see the benefits, not in my daily work or meeting attendance. Again, I understand there are benefits for professionals outside academia.

Blogosphere, what are your feelings about professional-society memberships?

New Semesterish

The new semester started and the return of routine is somewhat invigorating. I need to get back to exercise; it fell somewhat by the wayside during the winter break.

I spend a lot of time interacting with undergraduates this semester. Basically, three days of my workweek go into teaching or teaching-related contact and activities.

I have a big deadline coming up on March 1, which is daunting/paralyzing, as well as exciting. I am very deadline driven, so it  should be fine.

I’m not too psyched about my latest crop of graduate students, that’s all I will say. I got spoiled by my most recent graduates. Expectations need to be recalibrated.

The problem with academics is that we’re expected (by colleagues and higher-up admins, but mostly by ourselves) to pour our entire beings into the career. But sooner or later, most of us find that careers don’t really love us back.  It’s a cumulative effect of ever mounting administrivia, eroding support for the higher education especially visible at state schools, and constantly being slapped around (critical reviews, rewrites, unrelenting grant rejections). And at some point we turn around to find out that few people actually care about what we do, and that those people might include us.

I think I am finally at the place where I am OK saying that this is a job. A good job, with lots of perks and freedoms, but it is a job. It is not an embodiment of my soul, or at least not all of my soul. It is OK to enjoy parts and not enjoy other parts, and for these parts to change over time. It is OK to not put 100% in, especially when no one else seems to do things above 70% of their capacity. I know these sound like trivial insights, but the good little girls (and boys) among us need constant reminders that being less than perfect is OK.

There are many exhausting things about being a faculty member, and a woman in a men-dominated field, and also a theorist in a field seemingly filled by experimentalists who appear convinced that theorists (except for the one or two they have heard of) are useless time wasters. But I am too exhausted to list all the things that are exhausting.

Instead, I will go look for the incarnations of the pieces of my soul elsewhere. One might be among the Amazon Prime movies. Plenty are at the local library and in online fiction magazines. The parts of my soul that are still inside me all want chocolate.

(Btw, top 2017 commenters lyra211, gasstationwithoutpumps, and Prodigal Academic, your rewards have been sent! Check your email!)