Eternal Scientific Youth

Academic blogosphere, I have a ponderable issue for you.

We all know there are academics, age 70 or 80 or more, who seem to be as passionate about their work as ever, getting grants, running huge labs, showing no sign of slowing down.

When I started on the tenure track, I thought that would be me; I thought I would never retire. I don’t think that any more. Assuming I stay healthy for the next few decades, I believe I will retire not too long after 65 (so 20+ years to go), and when I retire I won’t look back.

I started a lengthy post on why I feel how I feel, but I got bored and ran out of steam (telling, innit). Instead, here’s a concise bullet-point list of some of the reasons (reasons other than personality) which might explain why Prof. Silverback keeps chugging along while others run out of steam.

Peppy octogenarian Prof. Silverback:

  • Relatively smooth career trajectory with ample funding + early and consistent recognition + family run by someone else so most energy reliably devoted to science. Silverback never had his heart broken by his job and never fell out of love with it.

Low-enthusiasm middle-aged likes of me (or maybe just me):

  • Lots of energy dispensed daily on emotional and mental labor for family.  After 20 years, the reserves of peppiness are significantly depleted.
  • In the fields with few women, constant energy seepage owing to background bias that acts as head wind: forever being incompetent until proven otherwise, which necessitates constantly having to prove to every new colleague everywhere, no matter how young and wet behind the ears the colleague is, that we’re actually experts in something and not just a fat decoration or someone’s significant other or a diversity token.
  • For men and women in STEM at research schools today, the hustle never stops. As we get more senior, we’re supposed to maintain or exceed tenure-track research momentum, while also taking on more professional service and service to the institution. Becoming an admin or dropping research to do more teaching+service are considered failure or treason, and often mean research-career suicide, even though they are likely perfectly legitimate ways to fulfill a natural need for a change in our jobs. [Clarissa has a couple of interesting posts (here and here) on the issue from the standpoint of a research-active humanities faculty at an undergraduate institution — i.e., where raising grants not necessary.] STEM faculty at research schools are trapped in perpetual tenure-trackdom, but with ever more non-research obligations. Even without the additions, it might be hard to maintain motivation to do the same job the same way for decades. Does your 100th paper really excite you just as much as your 1st or even your 10th? How about your 200th or 500th paper? Now, how do you feel about your 100th grant proposal vs your 1st or even your 10th? I personally need a lot of variety and change, but I know there are others who contentedly work on a niche area for decades. Maybe the latter is key to staying motivated?
  • Less support all around (staff, state support, intramural funds) than was common even just 20 years ago; loss of time and energy on doing and filing all sorts of paperwork that (travel reservations and reimbursements, grant budgeting)

What say you, blogosphere? What am I missing? What are the reasons behind some people’s boundless interest in their science well into old age? If we can identify it, maybe be can bottle it and sell it.

Existing Only in Relation to Someone Else

Disclaimer: Another post in which I might come across as an a$$hole, but it’s not on purpose.

The following is probably no news to anyone who spends time on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.). However, I’m only on (literary) Twitter (absolutely no Facebook or anything else) and am relatively new at it. Anyway, there’s this profile trend that’s honestly incomprehensible to me:

Random woman on Twitter: I am a wife, mother, daughter, friend…

Much less common, but far from absent:

Random man on Twitter: I am a husband, dad,…

I will never understand this impetus to identify yourself by what you are to other people, and especially people who have such a broad range of ages and relationships. I mean, if I were to take this to the extreme, I could totally write the following, if it weren’t for profile character limits:

I am a wife, mother, daughter, sister, sister-in-law, hopefully future mother-in-law, hopefully future grandma, next-door neighbor, niece, cousin, second cousin once removed, neighbor two doors down, neighbor from the next block over, coworker, PhD advisor, former PhD advisor, former PhD advisee, blogger, reviewer of grants, most hated weekend shopper on account of taking forever to clear the register, loyal customer at employee-owned-and-operated gas stations, Amazon Prime haver, bitch who ruined someone’s college GPA, inspiring professor who sparked interest in science in someone else, filler of innumerable forms for children’s summer camps…

Seriously, though. First, women are the only ones who seem to list they are daughters and friends, even though I am pretty sure men are sons and friends just as often.

Second, being a wife or a daughter or a friend has never been a part of my identity, or at the very least not something I felt the world needed to be told. I mean, seriously. Why is being a daughter noteworthy, unless you were perhaps not a daughter at birth? Or being a friend — unless you are a terrible human being, you will have some friends. Or being a wife — maybe to some women, perhaps many women, this is an achievement, but it was never on the achievement list for me. I definitely wasn’t a little girl who dreamed of getting married; I just never thought about it until I was an adult who dated and would ask myself Would I marry this guy? only to find that the answer was no, until I met someone to whom I could say yes. Honestly, saying I’m someone’s wife (even though I am and my DH is great) makes me feel like I’m living in the 1930s. DH can say I’m his wife. I will say DH is my husband. I will absolutely not identify myself as DH’s wife. I will also not say that I am my parents’ daughter—it’s infantilizing and infuriating. Fuck that patriarchal noise.

But I am my kids’ mom and I cherish that identity; it affected me profoundly, changed everything about my world, and expanded my capacity for love in ways I could not have imagined before I had kids. Other than being a mom, being a teacher is probably the only other designation based on my relationship to other people that I could put out there as identifying. But these would go with and after scientist. And if I felt cocky, writer of short fiction would be in the mix.

So there you have it:

Xykademiqz: Academic scientist and teacher. Mom. Writer of short fiction.

And now I kind of want to remove mom because it’s too personal. And, if I am being honest, too softening. Compare how much less threatening the above is than the version below:

Xykademiqz: Academic scientist and teacher. Writer of short fiction.

Sometimes I want to be nonthreatening (like when I meet my friends’ small children). But sometimes — most to the time, actually — I want to instill terror in the hearts of my enemies. In the hearts of everyone, really.

I hate how women internalize misogyny, especially women like me, who are not stereotypically femme in their pursuits or appearance. It’s such an endless, exhausting struggle between how we see ourselves — strong, smart, competent — and how the rest of the world wants to see us and wants us to see ourselves — giving, soft, squishable.

Recently Enjoyed Bits of Culture

Wine

I can’t really drink red wine any more (too many brands give me migraines) so I have embraced my future as a wimpy drinker, focusing on sweet cocktails and white wine. Riesling is my favorite white, and I was really happy to find out that Pacific Rim Riesling (I tried the dry variety) is excellent yet inexpensive. Highly recommended! There’s a cool dragon pic on the inside wall.

Books

I recently read Scalzi’s Head On, a sequel to Lock In. I liked Head On quite a bit better than Lock InLock In introduced the world, but the actual thriller part was flat; in Head On, the thriller was well done and engaging. The whole series deals with a very realistic near-future world that is best understood by first reading the phenomenal (and free!) prequel novella Unlocked.

I have just finished Binti: Home, a second of three Binti novellas by Nnedi Okorafor. I love Okorafor’s writing. She writes sci-fi and fantasy, but with characters originating from Africa, which is refreshing, engaging, and just overall very cool. Another favorite of mine written by her is The Book of Phoenix. Okorafor builds vivid worlds in clean, seamless prose. In how engrossing, enjoyable, and evocative–yet clear and unassuming–her writing is, I would put Nnedi Okorafor along with Becky Chambers, Ann Leckie, and Claire North among my all-time favorites of any genre.

Short fiction

Speculative

The Things that We Will Never Say by Vanessa Fogg

The Ones Who Chose the Rain by George Edwards Murray

What is Eve? by Will McCintosh

Lepidoptera by Christopher Stanley

Animal Control by S.E. Casey

Causality Dilemma by Sheldon Lee Compton

I generally read and enjoy everything produced by A. Merc Rustad, Sara Saab, and John Wiswell, among others.

 

Literary Fiction

If you want the year’s creme de la creme in literary flash fiction, go check out Wigleaf Top 50.

Here are some that made a strong impression on me:

Crocodile Wife by Kathryn McMahon

Muddy Love by Eric T. Johnson

Alien Abdoption by Neil Clark

The Other Kind of Mermaids by Christopher James

Berta by Chelsea Voulgares

The Neverlands by Damhnait Monaghan

Some of my favorite short-form literary fiction writers are Kathryn McMahon, Jennifer Fliss, Cathy Ulrich, and K.C. Mead-Brewer, among others.

 

Movies

Theater

In part, I am an 11-year-old boy inside. He enjoys everything superhero and action.

Solo was great, very well acted, with a compelling plot and exciting action that doesn’t get in the way of the story. Go enjoy it without a qualm in the world: how Solo and Chubakka meet, how they come by The Millenium Falcon, etc. Don’t listen to the haters, the movie is great. Alden Ehrenreich is great as young Solo, a rascal in the making, but still not fully hardened by life so his soft gooey middle is visible.

Infinity Wars was enjoyable, but I preferred The Black Panther.

Deadpool 2 was fabulous. So much heart behind such a torrent of profanity. Great story, really funny, many pop-culture references.

In part, I am also a grown-a$$ woman (i.e., my a$$ has grown and I really hope it won’t grow any more). That part of me liked:

The Quiet Place

Tully

I love Emily Blunt (Can this woman get an Oscar for something already? She’s great in everything) and Charlize Theron. I want to be their friend.

 

On Netflix, movies that could have sucked but instead ended up charming and delighting me:

Sleeping with Other People

Drinking Buddies

What Happened to Monday

 

On Amazon Prime

Logan Lucky (good heist story, plus combines my loves Channing Tatum and Adam Driver; now free to watch with Prime)

Colossal (I loved this movie)

Begin Again (Is Mark Ruffalo ever bad in anything? No. Never.)

 

Music

Stuff I recently Shazammed

Lydia by Highly Suspect (unfortunately, the video is a bit disturbing, but the song is awesome)

Bad Bad News by Leon Bridges

Severed by The Decemberists

S&M by Rihanna (an oldie but goodie)

Please share a bit about what you’ve read or seen or hears recently that really touched you.

Professing

Saveedra says: “Interesting that you put forward the money paid by students as a reason for teaching to be taken seriously. A corollary, I suppose, is that where tuition fees are very low (my own shade of godforsakia) efforts should be accordingly reduced.”

I guess my previous teaching post does sound like that, doesn’t it? I’ve been thinking about whether this is really what I think and feel and no, I don’t really think that the quality of education is commensurate with payment. But, I guess that I do think and feel that the amount students pay for tuition can and perhaps should be wielded in the face of those who are university faculty yet for some reason don’t think that doing a good job teaching undergrads is part of their job. Why? Because often they cite money (specifically, money they brought in) as the reason not to teach or not to teach well/spend effort on, so perhaps money talk is what they understand.

I did my undergrad in a country where you pick your major as a freshman and your studies are completely focused from day one. None of the breadth requirements that we have in the US, in part because our public high schools taught kids much more in quantity and breadth than what I’ve seen here. I know this is an obnoxious thing to say, but it is true, as I can attest after one of my kids has been through K-12 in a state with good public schools and graduated with high honors (he has 4.0 GPA + a number of AP credits). Anyhow, my undergrad education was free because I was one of the top performers. Lower performers paid on a sliding scale etc., but I wrote about it all before and I don’t want to go down that particular rabbit hole again.

In Godforsakia, my ancestral home country, professors and TAs were married to their courses: course A was only ever taught by Professor X; discussion/labs for course A were only ever taught by a certain TA or TAs. Teaching assistantship was not like in the US: instead, it was a faculty apprenticeship. You became a TA through a selective job recruitment process, it was a permanent job with salary and benefits (one of the benefits being grad school for free) and nearly complete autonomy over discussion content and the written portion of each exams (yes, TAs wrote written exams and graded them). Being a TA also meant that, eventually, after the PhD, you would become a professor after someone retired and vacated a course for you to teach/marry. But before becoming professors, people had years of teaching experience as TAs.

Even so, some professors were great teachers and some were not. Some were downright terrible. Most had big egos (few students dared go to office hours to disturb these sacred professorial beings; they made do with discussions and TAs). Professors were not paid great, but their jobs were secure and carried high societal status.

In the US, I know that some of the best teachers are at community colleges (the least expensive for students and not overly financially rewarding for faculty). There are also fabulous teachers at primarily undergraduate institutions, which themselves range in terms of price from inexpensive state schools to very expensive private ones. So all these typically give undergraduates excellent educational value.

I’d say research schools (again, some inexpensive some extremely pricey) are those where the quality of instruction is most highly variable. I know people who are dedicated and talented teachers (I’d like to think I am among them) and I know those who don’t give half a $hit. I really, really wish we didn’t hire or tenure the latter, ever. I also wish we didn’t hire or tenure people who have single-gender or single-ethnicity research groups (yes, they definitely exist, still). We faculty speak of this among ourselves, but the thing is you can’t tell the future (and assuming you can reeks of bias). By tenure time, if someone has money and papers and their letter say they’re great, they will get tenure, unless they have grossly violated conduct (e.g., not shown up for classes or abused students or staff). That’s the ugly truth at research universities: there’s service, and there’s teaching, but they are the bastard children while research is their heir-to-the-throne sibling.

There are good teachers at research universities, but they are good because they inherently value that part of their job. Unfortunately, if someone doesn’t value teaching and devotes all their efforts to research that brings money, they will often be able to do so with impunity. I don’t think it’s possible to convince them that teaching is, in fact, important. My musings here have to do with finding ways to compel such people to pull their weight in teaching. Money probably has to be involved in the compelling.

On Teaching, Take Eleventy Gazillion

I have to rant about teaching a bit (again).

I’m doing course assignments this year and a relatively junior faculty member just tells me that he doesn’t want to be in rotation to teach a certain required undergraduate course any more. He just doesn’t want to! Why? Well, he taught it three times and his evaluations were always bad, “ruining his excellent teaching record.” His record is not excellent. Anyone (you’d hope) can teach well an upper-level graduate course in own specialty. Tbh, he’s not fabulous even there based on the numbers; there are much better people. My own grad students took his courses and do not consider him particularly good.

The freakin’ ego on people, seriously.

So he just doesn’t want to do it. And there’s a senior faculty member who doesn’t want to do it either, for the same reason (bad evals).

I have blogged about this course before. The material is hard and abstract. It’s not easy to teach, and it takes a ton of thought and time to do it right. But I have taught it many times and I’ve always received good evaluations because: a) I really care that the lectures are engaging; b) I learn everyone’s name even though it’s a huge class because that increases student engagement and class attendance; c) I carefully craft homework and exams; d) I have a ton of office hours, with extra ones the day before the exams; e) I often teach discussion. It is absolutely possible to get good evaluations in these large undergraduate courses, even as a woman instructor, but it requires a lot of work.

Here are some things I have suggested that the colleague do in order to help him engage students more. (Btw, I sat in on his classes several times. He knows the material, but he is deathly, deathly boring. If I were the student, I’d likely stop coming to class. )

I suggested to switch to three times a week instead of twice, as undergrads needs more contact with the material, plus the material is hard and they can’t keep focus for that long. He doesn’t want to because he wants to spend minimal time on teaching and focus on research.

I suggested he teach discussions or introduce more office hours (he has them once a week) to increase contact time with students. He doesn’t want to because he wants to spend minimal time on teaching and focus on research.

I suggested he get comfortable with the course materials: maybe find a different book or make his own notes; tailor the homework and exams a little bit rather than use previous-year materials made by someone else; decide what to focus on, maybe cut some material out or put something else in. His answer? He doesn’t want to because he wants to spend minimal time on teaching and focus on research.

So, to summarize. You have poor teaching evaluations because you don’t care about teaching at all and don’t want to invest time or effort into it, and undergrads are not stupid and can tell who cares and who doesn’t, and most of them do actually appreciate people caring about teaching. Now, since you didn’t want to put in the work and got poor evaluations you want us to reward you by never having to teach this course again.

It makes me livid because the reward for doing a good job with time-consuming teaching assignments is getting to do even more time-consuming teaching assignments, which cuts down your time for research.

The reward for bad teaching? Less teaching and more time for research, and thus more money and prestige and the ability to look down your nose at those poor suckers like me who end up picking up your goddamn slack. You can even say that we must enjoy these labor-intensive teaching assignments so it’s our own fault that we keep getting them, otherwise why wouldn’t we get out of them like you did?

I fuckin’ hate my colleagues who seem to think students are a nuisance. These young people and their families pay good money and go into debt to learn in our classrooms, so how dare you do a shoddy job, you self-absorbed piece of $hit.

And I hate it that the higher-ups just shrug and appeal to fairness to students when they create two strata of faculty, those who are too precious to teach undergrads and those whose research time is apparently worthless and who can be manipulated with these calls to fairness to students. I want it to be worth more to teach well a large undergrad course than a small graduate seminar. I want the effort recognized and rewarded. I want the colleagues who are selfish to be penalized for it, not rewarded with more research time.

Listen, I like teaching undergrads. They are adorable and hilarious. But I hate that teaching undergrads is considered lowly by my colleagues, that it’s considered $hit work unbecoming of true intellectual genii. I want us all to pull our weight teaching undergrads and I want us all to do it well. Evals suck? Do better. Evals still suck? Maybe a penalty of some kind, then, but definitely not an effective teaching release, for chrissakes.