Shit Valley

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Warning: Whining ahead. 

Since the beginning of the quarantine, which is now five weeks in over here, the university administration has sent between seven and eight million emails emphasizing how we need to be flexible and understanding with our undergraduates and graduate students, how we need to check in on their mental health, and that we definitely positively should not be pressing for normal-times productivity.

This is all perfectly fine and I fully support it. But I’d like the same courtesy to be applied to us, faculty/PIs, by both the administration and students.

I am not teaching this semester, but my husband is. I have witnessed things quickly — within a week or two — going from “Put your courses online in any way you can, we don’t expect perfection” to “Students want this and that, want more synchronous teaching, more videos, want to chat in person, make it all happen, stat.”

My graduate students definitely expect (and receive) lenience from my side, but want me to keep going as usual. They’re impatient about feedback on their papers and re-submissions, even though I have service in addition to research and kids at home and kids’ school work and tons of daily cooking and haven’s had a moment alone in five weeks.

I know, I know, that’s what being a grownup means, and I have a good, well-paying, secure job, and most people are in much worse conditions now, so I should really shut up, but within this privileged life of mine, I occasionally get tired of being stuck in Shit Valley, located at the foot of multiple hills down which all the shit rolls. Kids’ and students’ shit, because they’re young and need protection and I’m supposed to be able to take it all. Admins’ shit, because somehow we faculty work in the service of them and their grand (by which I mean increasingly corporate) visions, instead of them working for us and the students.

I, too, am human, and some days (or years) I don’t wanna cook or read crappy drafts or parse adminspeak-filled emails devoid of content, and instead I want to be left alone to watch Hart of Dixie for the seventeenth time because the fictional town of Bluebell, Alabama, and its wacky inhabitants soothe my soul.

Blogosphere, what do you do to unwind? Any go-to activities, books, movies, shows?

Linky Dink, Dinky Link

 

Shopping and Mentoring

Shopping

You know, I believe I’m doing quite well during this quarantine time. Generally in good spirits, productive, having time for extracurriculars, and keeping the family going.

Then I go shopping and get reminded that we all live in the middle of a shitshow.

The zombie-apocalypse (i.e., nonexistent) traffic; everyone at the store subdued, with masks and gloves on. Never before was the aisle with toilet paper and paper towels the first stopping point. At 7 am on a midweek shopping trip. I wish I could do it biweekly, but we go through A LOT of food (did I mention that the not-yet-13-y.o. Middle Boy is 6’1″?), and I don’t have the space to store two weeks worth of all that meat and produce.

Yesterday, one man in his sixties snickered at me as I picked out fruit while wearing a mask and gloves. I allow that my mask was ridiculous, but I don’t think that was it. He was the only shopper I saw all morning who wore neither a mask nor gloves. He probably thinks we’re all morons.

These days, every shopping trip completely drains me.

Blogosphere, how are you holding up? 

***

Mentoring

I have a postdoc (PD) who’s been with me about 18 months. Very energetic and productive, but communication has been an issue from the get-go. The problems stem from PD’s poor command of the language, as PD is a foreigner who got their PhD in their native country.

I just looked at a draft of our first joint paper, and my heart sank. On the first page in the preprint form (meaning the page contains the title and the abstract of some ~150 words), I made more than forty comments. There were multiple syntax, grammar, and punctuation issues in each sentence. It’s completely unreadable.

PD said they consulted the two native speakers we have in the group before sending to me, which I highly doubt. I can give some general remarks, but the line edits would just be too numerous. I don’t have the time or the bandwidth right now to teach someone English as a second language, especially remotely. Even if I were to mark everything up on the pdf, then send it back, it would only achieve readable English at the sentence level. We still have to rewrite completely for structure, clarity, and emphasis.

Even in the best of times, I cannot do as much hand-holding for a postdoc as I do for a graduate student, and these are far from the best of times. I said I would just rewrite the whole thing, and hopefully PD can learn from side-by-side comparison. 

Blogosphere, how would you handle this? In normal times vs. corona times? 

Learning in Times of Corona

Kids are back in school, virtually. I am amazed at the great resources available to them. Smurf’s 3rd-grade class is organized; he gets a clear list of daily to-dos on Google Classroom, clicks on each task and does it, turns it in, then proceeds to the next one. He has a videoconference with his class three mornings a week and he’s had some playdates with a good buddy the same way. He’s enjoying his piano lessons over video. I’ve started some light kickboxing tutoring with him, because he’s been really into it ever since I deigned to set up the heavy bag I’d bought for Xmas. He’s super cute in oversize gloves, punching!

Middle Boy’s school situation is much more chaotic. He’s in middle school, so different teachers for different subjects and different kids. Some teachers are comfortable assigning work online, others not so much; the amount across the board is far less than what the kids would do in regular school.

Middle Boy is now learning Spanish through something called Blended Spanish software, which (to me) looks gorgeous. I don’t speak Spanish, but speak (with various levels of proficiency) several other languages; I’ve been meaning to brush up on my rusty German for years now, but hey, no time like the quarantine to take up learning a new language, so maybe I will make it Spanish alongside MB.

It bothers me how little general knowledge the kids have (or maybe it’s just the perpetually blase MB). He was supposed to find verbs ending in -es and -is in a sentence in Spanish, but it turned out he didn’t know what a verb was or what verb conjugations were. These were quick to explain, but why doesn’t he know this from school? (Why don’t many of my undergrads alongside some domestic grad students know what parts of speech are? When I mention things like a compound adjective, so many of them give me a deer-in-headlights look.) I have no idea when these concepts are covered in K-12 English; I’m thinking in elementary school, but I hope it is before the start of foreign-language instruction.

Husband always tells me not to compare people against myself, but I’ve always wanted to know EVERYTHING. Scratch that; I wanted to learn everything where I  could appreciate an underlying logic, and the logic made memorization a breeze. I hated teachers who made me cram without rhyme or reason (I’m looking at you, all history teachers and most biology and geography teachers I’ve ever had). At some point I fell in love with grammar, and that love and fascination with the underlying structures stayed with me as I studied foreign languages. Seeing the conjugations of the present tense of a couple of Spanish verbs, and how natural the rules were, made me giddy.

Anyway, virtual learning. On the upside, at least I now know what the kids are learning and can help out and explain what was missed. And I get to learn a few things along the way! 😉

**

Likely taking a break from posting tomorrow, as I have a story deadline and some award nominations to finish.

Re some stuff on Twitter. I know it’s a privilege to be home at this time and not outside, doing essential work and risking my life every day. But the likes of me who are fortunate to work from home can’t be expected to self-flagellate over it 24/7.

Preventive Annoyance Mitigation

nicoleandmaggie (the Grumpies) have a new post, and one part of it resonated strongly with me. Below is the comment I left there.

n&m: “I’ve started hitting chatty. I apologize in advance to anybody that I have an even sporadic texting relationship with. I am pretty amazing in small doses, but annoying in longer interactions. Trying to be less annoying never seems to work, so I’ve learned to spread myself out. Which is hard to do these days! I am #blessed that my family puts up with me.

This hit me in all the feelz. This is what I usually do (assume I am generally annoying and try to avoid overdosing people, thinking I’m doing them a kindness). But when I brought this up (that I get to be too much/annoying quickly) a few times with a few people who I feel know me and like me, they looked at me like I’d sprouted a second head. Apparently, they don’t think I’m annoying at all and some have brought up that I actually end up seeming aloof and disinterested (whereas all I tried to do is not impose, not suffocate them with my intensity). I think the problem is not the people who want me me in their lives; they would probably like more time and interaction. It’s the people whom I for some reason feel I should impress, who just don’t like me but feel like they have to pretend they do, and who have a hard time concealing their true feelings; from them, it comes across that any amount of exposure to me is annoying, no matter how small I try to make myself or how considerate of their time I try to be. (It really sucks if such people include, for example, one’s parent. That will mess one up big time. Ahem.) I need to stop vying for these people’s approval, restrict their access to my emotional core, and stick to perfunctory interactions. It’s always hard to admit, but some people will dislike me no matter what I do (or don’t do), and they’re not worth diminishing myself into oblivion.

 

Blogging Sprint

OK, timer’s on: 15 min to draft, and whatever comes out, comes out.

  • Absurdist literary fiction piece published. It’s oh so delicious and weird. It fell out of my head almost fully formed and it’s perfect. Sometimes they do that.
  • I have another story with a really cool narrative structure that has been getting lots of compliments and shortlists, but no acceptance yet. I feel really bad for the poor, misunderstood story.
  • I have several manuscripts that I have to handle as associate editor. I do not feel like doing it.
  • I have several manuscripts that I have to review as a referee. I do not feel like doing it.
  • I have two award nominations to assemble and submit by Friday. I like the people this is for, and while I do not feel like doing it, it’s  not too bad.
  • I have a paper to revise and resubmit. Ugh.
  • I have a draft of a first paper (in my group) by my postdoc to review. Ugh.
  • Putting it all out there makes it seem daunting. It’s not too much work when I’m motivated and without distractions. Otherwise, ugh.
  • I’ve been shopping on Tuesdays, early morning. Last Tuesday, right after opening,  the store was pretty crowded. I should probably switch the shopping day.
  • Since Starbucks is closed, Nescafe Taster’s Choice instant coffee has been my go-to. I love it. I love it much better than filter coffee from any home coffee machine; all the plastic ruins the taste for me. The instant coffee has been a major contributor to my quarantine happiness. I love you, Nescafe!
  • Kids kinda started school this past week, but barely. I guess it’s back for real on Monday. I am dreading having to harangue Middle Boy about his work.
  • Kim’s Convenience on Netflix is hilarious and heartwarming. Just finished Season 4. Love, love, love the Kims!
  • DH and I watch Ozark. It will fill that Breaking Bad void in your soul, only instead of the scorching yellows and oranges of New Mexico, the whole show is tinted blue and deep green and is soooo scary and delicious. (I feel like I’ve written about it? No time to go back and look. And anyway: Repetitio mater studiorum est.)
  • Fizzy water. ❤

How’s your weekend been, blogosphere? 

Largely Levity Links

Bits of Advising, With a Quick Navel Dip

Just edited a student’s draft. Made over 300 comments in the pdf. Stu will not be happy. Stu is new and seemed quite perturbed when I returned a marked-up two-pager for a fellowship. Apparently, Stu thought my mind would be blown by the quality of their writing. I’m not kidding, Stu pretty much said so. I mean, Stu’s a native speaker, but has got a lot to learn about technical writing (and, near as I can judge, writing in general). We’re not in the Little League anymore. We’re writing as professional scientists.

Stu’s idiosyncrasy: Writing a paper like it is a murder mystery, with these vague hints on  what is to be shown later. You think you, as advisor, have seen it all. Nope.

***

I, personally, am doing quite well right now, enjoying the lack of buzzing around, delighted that all my trips from this spring and summer are cancelled (I know I should be making those trips, I am on sabbatical, that’s what the sabbatical is for, but I just hate hate hate airline travel), catching up on work, cooking every day, exercising, writing, having enough time with the sprogs, and still some left for reading and/or Netflix. It’s all very low-key and enjoyable. I’m never bored because I have lots of interests. It seems most introverts are doing well while sheltering in place.

The issue of one-track-mindedness came up several times with my students during the pandemic. Some really miss seeing people; some miss certain activities. One student, in particular, Stu 2, is a big-time athlete who has been cut off from training and is  devastated. The sport to which Stu 2 devotes hours each day is the one and only thing in Stu 2’s life besides the PhD. With the sport gone, as it’s not really something Stu 2 can practice within the confines of their apartment, Stu 2 is not doing well at all. All their other hobbies have fallen by the wayside. Apparently, Stu 2 tends to hyper-focus on one thing, which I suppose yields great dividends, but is suboptimal when the conditions are suboptimal themselves.

I’ve had to have this conversation several times over my career: telling the students to remember what they liked as kids, to focus on an art they liked to create or consume, to get back to that. Movies, books, playing an instrument, painting, dancing… There has to be something that can take the edge off.

I only started really, truly appreciating the arts and humanities when I stood on top of that hill of professional and personal milestones and said, “All right. Now what?” I honestly don’t understand how I’d never before then seen the vast importance of art for one’s soul, of the importance of examining the human condition. Actually, I probably do know: I had my nose to the grindstone for decades. There was no time to look up and see the world around me.

I wish I could instill in my kids and my students the importance of arts and humanities. I was an arty and crafty kid, I drew and wrote and sewed, but then it all went away as I focused on STEM. I wish I had awoken from my slumber sooner, I wish that someone had nudged me and said, hey, there’s more to life than work and guys. I think I would’ve been happier in my youth, much less prone to peer pressure and boy-related drama if I hadn’t allowed my early interests to get completely lost.

Blogosphere, how are you doing these days? Are you exploring new or forgotten interests? Enjoying and/or creating art? 

It’s Been a Weird Day

A guy I went to high school and college with, and who’s also in the US, emailed me to tell me our highschool physics teacher (who was the best!) just died. It was weird to hear from the former classmate since we’re not really in touch, but I suppose I am easily googlable, and so is he; it was also weird because I could’ve sworn that I’d heard of that teacher’s death a decade ago.

Anyway, the teacher did just die; there was an obituary on our highschool webpage (I also learned that my high school had a webpage). It’s mildly disturbing to have thought someone dead for so long when he wasn’t.

The classmate and I talked over the phone later in the afternoon. That was a bag of awkward. I barely ever speak my native language; I only text/email with parents and sibling, and I speak English 99.9% of the time with my husband. So I couldn’t remember certain words, and sometimes caught myself translating verbatim an expression from English into mother tongue because that came to me faster than the organic equivalent.

Additional weirdness stemmed from all the info this former classmate had about our cohort. I haven’t thought about most of these people since I graduated high school nearly three decades ago. Apparently, one had committed suicide last year; that was really sad to hear; I remember that boy always goofing around. A number of people never married or had kids (of course, those are not the only way to happiness, but based on how we were all raised, I imagine that, for most of these folks, singledom wasn’t a choice). The classmate mentioned all these names that lay under a thick coat of dust in my mind; I don’t think I could’ve remembered most of them without prompting. I also can’t really discern if I remember someone from primary (elementary+middle) or high school. It’s all a big mess that I never want to touch. I don’t think about childhood, growing up, people I used to know, because what’s the point? When I do, I get weepy and nostalgic, and those are (to me) such annoying, useless emotions. I was young and there; now I am old and here. What’s there to dwell on? F*ck looking back.

That said, it was nice to get in touch and get a whiff of some gossip, but after 30 min of catching up, we were done. We’re probably good for another couple of decades.

As I said, weird.

How’s your Wednesday, blogosphere?

Vanity

Craving normalcy? What’s more normal than xykademiqz crying woe-is-me? Nothing,  that’s what.

So… I received a university-level award. Thank you, thank you. It is a big deal. A couple of months ago, the photographer came to my research-group meeting and took pictures of me talking with my graduate students; he took dozens. The one that ended up in the announcement might as well be described as “Fat Angry Troll About to Bite Off Head of Graduate Student.”

My husband, who usually says I look great even when I really don’t, actually concurred on this one. He asked, “Did you offend the photographer? This is such a bad picture, it seems like it was chosen out of spite.” It looked like I was yelling at my poor graduate student, which I wasn’t. Who the f*ck takes pictures for 30 min and chooses that?

I did manage to find the editor and they put up a different photograph. I still look like a beached whale, but at least I look relaxed and smiling and not foaming at the mouth. I might not be pretty or photogenic, but at the very least I shouldn’t appear to be harboring murderous intent. FFS.

I have some selfies from later that same day, also at work, in which I look nice and human, and one of which may be my new faculty profile pic. I took one today with unwashed hair in a poorly lit room, and still didn’t manage to approach the level of trolldom produced by a professional photographer after a 30-min photo shoot.

It’s especially upsetting because there were several other recipients for related awards, and they all looked good in the announcement. Not only do I not look good, I look fuckin’ awful, at the level of those pictures when you’re drunk and sweaty, with one eye closed and your tongue sticking out.

At this point, after more than fifteen years in academia, I am pretty traumatized from dealing with university communications staff. Every article has me sounding like a moron, every picture uglier than the next.

Academic blogosphere, how do you deal with your university communications office?