academia

F*cktober

Alas, I speak not of the fun kind, the province of randy college youth

Nay… My tale goes far back, all the way to the last millenium… And it is a dark one.

Every year, come October, the pearly gates windows for NSF unsolicited proposals swing open. As if in a trance, thousands of pilgrim scientists gather to worship at the feet of the unfeeling behemoth. In a month of pure agony, their bodies and souls are possessed by the tyrant, yet they remember little. Their consciousness barely punctuates the thick caffeine haze, wherein hearts race and thoughts scatter… Come November, the pilgrims wake up with a vague feeling of shame and regret, chafed, hopelessly trying to remember what it was that left that foul taste in their mouths.

In the spring, some of them bear the fruit of the unholy alliance. They care for it lovingly during its three-year-long life… And what a precious gift it is. So small, so feeble, so rare… But what an honor to be bestowed such a gift, and to be free, if but for a little while, of the unquenchable thirst that overtakes every fall…

For when you see a disheveled scientist carrying a cup of coffee, know that F*cktober is upon us. No one is safe. Best to procure some lubricant.

Noisy

I drafted this post a while ago, but never published it. Perhaps it’s time, as ASBMB’s publication of “A Good Little Girl” (original post here) reminded me of it. This post will likely go *poof*  in a few days. 

—–

We voted for the promotion of a faculty member to full professor. The colleague’s record is quite strong. He commands massive amounts of funds, mostly from DoD, has a large group, and produces a lot of papers. In that regard, he’s a model faculty member. The support for his promotion was unanimous.

The colleague is a master of self-promotion. He’s what I would call “noisy.” He’s very vocal about his awesomeness, and he does not let anyone forget it for a second. Over the past several years, through my service to the department, I have been privy to just how much internal money has been spent to show this colleague institutional love. In fact, I wrote several nomination letters and assembled nomination packages for him to get internal awards, accompanied by flexible funds. (He received the awards; but, in case you are wondering, no, I never got a “thank you” for the work I put into those successful nominations).

But, when you look at this colleague’s record in detail, there are some interesting aspects.

The colleague boasts about his high student evaluations. Then you see that he has not taught an undergraduate course — any undergraduate course, let alone a required, high-enrollment one — in many years, since before his last promotion. All his teaching has been restricted to two graduate courses with 10-15 enrollment. Not exactly the world’s toughest-to-please student audience. Actually, if his evaluations weren’t great in this scenario, that would be quite alarming.

When you look at service, there is absolutely the barest minimum of service to both the institution and the department. He serves less than most of our assistant professors, and I can assure you that we really protect the time of our young faculty. Over the past several years, I offered him to serve on what I believe are the more meaningful among the university committees, and he always said he was too busy. Basically, his only service is to the profession and always in a capacity that enhances his visibility (e.g., conference program committees).

So it really pisses me off when someone comes to tell me I cannot decide to reduce my own teaching and service with “But-but-but, what happens to the institution? What happens to the students if everyone does what you propose? How can you be so selfish?” Because, of course, by being female I have to first and foremost think of my duties to others. I guarantee that no one will say a thing to this colleague who was just promoted. Nobody will even hint to  him that he mooches off others and he should pick up the slack in teaching and service. Nobody will scold him for being selfish, as long as he brings in the funds.  And that’s why this is all so fucked up. And he’s hardly the only one of his kind.

The colleague will go on his merry selfish way, with maximal free time to pursue funds and write papers and work on his visibility, and periodically make loud noises to remind us all how well funded and well published and how much more valuable than the rest of us he is. I don’t know what goes on in his head, but I bet he thinks he really is so much better than the rest of us, and I bet he believes that the likes of me actually prefer teaching required undergrad courses with huge enrollments and serving on university committees to writing papers and grants, because if we didn’t love it so much we would just not do it, like him!

I hate that selfish people prosper the most.

I hate that it is so hard for people who are not selfish to act selfish, and thus to prosper as much as the effortlessly selfish people.

I hate that women are not allowed to show that they are even thinking about being selfish without someone coming to tell them, “Tsk, tsk, tsk, won’t you think of the children?”

I hate that I am supposed to be everybody’s goddamn mother. Or secretary. (Or quiet diversity token. But that’s a story for another day.)

Don’t Confuse Style with Intent

Riker, Picard, and Kolrami

Riker, Picard, and Kolrami

Quote from “Peak Performance,” a 1989 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

[Kolrami has criticized Riker’s inappropriate joviality and lack of seriousness for a commanding officer.]

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Don’t confuse style with intent. Only a fool would question Commander Riker’s dedication to Starfleet and the men and women under his command. He is simply the finest officer with whom I have ever served.

Sirna Kolrami: We shall see if your faith is well founded.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The test is whether the crew will follow where Commander Riker leads. His… his “joviality” is the means by which he creates that loyalty. And I will match his command style with your statistics anytime.

********

A few years ago, a senior female colleague, whom I consider a friend, told me that I did not have the right personality to go into administration. I don’t think she wanted to be mean and I believe she told me her honest opinion. I also have no intention whatsoever of ever going into administration. But her remark did sting, as they always do when a person whose opinion you value confirms some of the worst fears or most negative opinions you have of yourself. What I heard was a confirmation that how I am, my entire personality, is simply wrong for being a senior member of academia.

I am much more serious in my blog writing than I am in real life. I think my family and my students would roll their eyes at how stuffy I sometimes sound on the blog, especially when I am in advice-giving mode.  I am really not serious in real life, at all. (You should hear our family’s dinner conversations.) However, it’s a real challenge in faculty meetings to not blurt out the jokes that pop into my mind while the colleagues drone on. If you ever felt the urge to laugh at a funeral, that’s  how I feel in just about every meeting ever. With age, I have gotten better at keeping my mouth shut and distracting myself so as not to disrupt the super-serious and often time-wasting proceedings.

But my personality seems to be perfect for teaching undergrads. Peppering my lectures with “good bad jokes” (this is verbatim from a student comment) works well to keep the students engaged and generally everyone in a good mood. The courses I teach are very “mathy” (again, an expression a student used) and challenging on their own; for many undergrads, every avenue that can be used to relate such material to something practical or enjoyable is not only welcome but, in fact, necessary for the students to feel a real connection with what they are learning. Goofing around with them fits the bill.

I am also myself with my graduate students and my collaborators, as I let my pun-happy freak flag fly. I hope most of them don’t mind. At least they are all used to me.

But I never forget that my personality is wrong, that being a goofball is out of the norm, yet another item in the long list of ways in which I am not how I should be for where I want to be professionally.

This year, I am chairing an important university-level committee. It was a surprise that I was chosen to chair it, considering I had been myself the whole time leading to the election. But now that I was supposed to take up my chairing duties, I had every intention of being dead serious, like my predecessor, because it’s a very important committee.

We had the first meeting the other day and I had the floor to myself for quite a while, because there was a lot of material to present to the new members. I was very nervous and I felt at times that I couldn’t find appropriately weighty words, becoming of a serious academic. But I could always find a metaphor, a light self-deprecating joke, or a slightly sarcastic remark. And within minutes, I was relaxed, and so was everyone else on the committee. To my complete surprise, I was able to run a very efficient meeting. Here are some unexpected aspects that I noticed.

  • I covered all the material that I was supposed to cover, and I believe I did it clearly, and in considerably less time than my predecessor. An incisive remark or an appropriate metaphor is often more efficient at conveying meaning than three paragraphs worth of admin-speak. I will hypothesize that actual living academics in meetings with other academics might, in fact, like to have their information conveyed clearly and succinctly, just like all other humans do in every aspect of their life. Who knew?
  • I was nervous, but I guess so was everyone else, especially the new members. I think I (inadvertently) set a lighthearted tone that helped everyone relax quickly.
  • When I compare this meeting to the ones over the past years (different chair every year), I believe I spent overall less time talking myself while other senior members of the committee chimed in more. I am not sure what the reason is; maybe I am a blithering fool who’s not worth listening to? Whatever the reason, it’s a good thing overall — everyone sharing their impressions with the new members is vastly superior to just me dispensing wisdom for an extended period of time.
  • What is interesting is that some people who were very quiet last year spoke quite freely and cheerfully this year. It might be that they are simply more relaxed as they are no longer new. Whatever the reason, it’s good to finally hear from them!

Overall, I was surprised at how well everything went, how efficient the meeting was, and how cheerful everyone seemed as they were leaving. I did not suck at chairing this meeting, despite acting like myself.

You may call me Commander Riker.

Why Women-in-Science Panels Aren’t Very Useful

Based on my experiences with women-in-science panels, as a member of the audience as well as a panelist, these events tend to be a nearly complete waste of time. I don’t think these panels achieve very much and have left me wanting every single time, regardless of the role I played. Recently, I have been thinking about why that is so. (If you think these panels are awesome, I would definitely love to hear about what you found useful.)

Maybe these panels are like intro-level textbooks, useful for a novice, but once you’ve struggled with certain issues for a while and are ready for an advanced course, they no longer suffice. These panels are also a cheap way for organizations to pretend they are doing something for young women, without actually having to do much of substance.

The women in the audience come with two sets of questions: 1) succeeding professionally (perhaps as woman in a male-dominated field) and 2) work-life balance (which in practice translates to “how to have kids and still succeed”). Panels tend to spend most of their time on the second type of question, which I think it at the core of the low utility of these panels.

The young women who have been very successful thus far and have great pedigrees come in ready to kill it in the professional arena. Often, they don’t believe that the issues of bias will apply to them and are largely convinced we live in a post-sexist society. In contrast, no midcareer or senior woman in STEM thinks this. So there is a disconnect between what the older women say will be an issue and how to overcome it, and the fact that younger women don’t think this will apply to them because they themselves are excellent and academia is a meritocracy (Honorary Dudeness etc.), or they really believe sexism is a thing of the past (so everyone but the dinosaurs is enlightened). In reality, they simply haven’t had enough experiences yet to convince them that sexism is alive and well, thriving in many young guns, and more insidious than ever.

Then there is the issue of work–life balance (again, this is usually a euphemism for kids–work balance). Whether you are the primary caregiver (which most women are, whether they work or not), whether you breastfeed, whether you have multiples, how flexible the spouse’s job is, whether you have a nanny or use daycare, how long your commute is, not to mention whether your baby is healthy, are all issues that can cause considerable disparities in the stress levels of new moms in academia. There are young women who are approaching motherhood with trepidation and come to these workshops to brainstorm logistics, but there are women who may or may not have kids on the tenure track, or ever, but are definitely not interested in talking diapers or breast pumps right now.

There are young women who want to discuss the details of childrearing and associated challenges, but these are really better addressed in a peer forum rather than a panel. For the most part, panelists do not give these women the details they crave; mostly, panelists come off as women who have it together, much more together than what you want to see if you have just become a new mom and your world has been shaken to the core. I am not sure panelists mean to seem cold and calculated, but in my experience they almost always appear that way, often because these topics are something they dealt with in the past (we always seem much more together in hindsight than we really were in the moment  of crisis), but also because a woman’s work persona in STEM is one that always keeps it together.

As a panelist, I always feel that there are things I wish I could share, but they don’t seem to fit with where the moderators are going  or they seem inappropriate because the rest of panel has already driven the discussion in a different direction, and I never want to take up too much panel time (in contrast to some other panelists; there’s always someone who drones on). I always  feel that these panels are way too short and that we barely scratch the surface of what awaits people on the tenure track, let alone beyond. Many senior women seem eager to be done with the obligation and on to the next meeting of the day. The dynamics of wise and worldly and busy panelists talking at (as opposed to with) young and uninformed audience is not really conducive to establishing rapport, especially since the young women are not incompetent. The little time we do have is spent on things we all know already, and we never get to the things that are really at the core of the issues. And there are never many questions, which means the panel didn’t resonate with the audience and that there wasn’t enough time to do it right.

The oldies (I guess I am among them now) and the young women both know how to be tough in their professional arena, and that’s how they interact among themselves, yet these panels are supposed to address issues that are generally quite personal, and that’s the source of a serious disconnect — everyone is posturing, everyone is talking to strangers, and nobody really wants to (nor should be expected to) share really personal anecdotes; when they are shared, they are either trivial, featuring some minor drama that of course ended well, or, on a rare occasion when someone touches upon something really personal, everyone is embarrassed.

I am not sure how to best support young women on the tenure track, especially in the physical-science STEM fields, where the percentages of women are ridiculously low. You cannot force people to genuinely share their struggles and fears with virtual strangers; you definitely cannot force guarded overachievers, whose work persona has been toughened up specifically to not show weakness, to all of a sudden act all vulnerable and nurturing in front of a roomful of women who are also smart and competitive, and who are perhaps showing signs of doubt, weakness, or indecisiveness, but only because their protective armor hasn’t had the time to fully harden just yet.

You cannot expect women to relate as nurtures to other women in a professional context. This type of support has to come from a place of personal connection, and cannot be forced by the institution. Putting a whole bunch of women of different ages together, pretending they would make fast friends, is bullshit and a waste of everyone’s time.

What can institutions do? They can make sure to bring in women as technical speakers, have clear guidelines regarding maternity leave and tenure-clock stoppage, improve access to affordable childcare for students and faculty and staff. They can be unapologetic about affirmative action and relentless about educating the people already there about the massive body of research on implicit bias.

The institutions could also not hire a$$holes, but rather both men and women who will seek work-life balance (with or without kids) and will be interested in helping younger colleagues. This will never happen, of course, because research institutions in physical and biomedical fields want to hire first and foremost the people who can raise lots of grant money; hotshot prodigious fund raisers tend to prioritize work over all else.

Departments could create mentoring committees that include colleagues whom the young faculty member actually will not be afraid to ask questions. For example, of my two assigned mentors, one was never around and I never asked him a single thing; I was also afraid of him, as he struck me as someone who’d weed me out if he perceived I were a weak link. The other mentor was nominally friendly, but in practice so elusive and impossible to meet up with, that I gave up. I got most mentoring from two male collaborators, one midcareer and one very senior. We obviously never discussed breastfeeding and the like, but they were very helpful regarding strategies for grant submissions, interactions with program managers, department politics, etc.

As for women-in-science issues, among my female colleagues across the college, I found that there were very few who organized their lives similar to how I did. First, my female colleagues on average seem to pay for much more outside help than DH and I do (e.g., multiple nannies, often in addition to part-time daycare, appears to be a typical arrangement) or have spouses with very flexible occupations (some had stay-at-home spouses for a while). It’s hard to discuss these choices without judging or being judged, even with one’s close personal friends, let alone with peers who sit with you on committees and who are your competitors for internal awards.

So what do we all do in terms of support for junior faculty, especially women? I think panels, and generally any advice-giving interaction with colleagues, should be focused on troubleshooting for professional success, without connecting it with childcare. Professional success and the challenges on the way to achieving it are (largely) common to women and men, people with kids, people with elder care, people with disabilities. For instance, it is okay to talk about how much travel is necessary, how to best accommodate periods in which you cannot travel, the strategies to maximize publication output and your record in general when you are temporarily grounded — this can be because of kids, because you have a disorder that periodically flares up, or because you have elder care. I think we underestimate how many people have challenges other than childcare and who would benefit from brainstorming how to navigate their career just as much as a temporarily zombified breastfeeding mom would, yet they self-select out of these work-life panels. (One perk of being senior and partaking on university-level committees is that you meet many people across campus, see many CVs, and realize that almost everyone has had some personal stumble at one point or another.) Everyone would be better served if we refocused these panels on success in the face of professional challenges: dwindling grant support, amplified need for travel and exposure, increased pressure to publish, all with raised tenure bars and diminishing safety nets in terms of intramural funds. There’s plenty to discuss, without ever mentioning diapers.

And for emotional support? Friends and family, in meatspace and on the Internet.

Stats

stats

 

I usually get a few hundred views per day, and I am happy with that.
But it seems that “A Good Little Girl” really hit a nerve, and has been shared like crazy via Facebook (over 3k shares) and on  Twitter. So I have had several days with thousands of views and it’s been quite exciting watching my WordPress stats page. (Although, to be completely honest, I really enjoy my stats page even on slow days. Not sure that’s entirely healthy.)

I am really glad the post brought many new people to the blog.  Hi there! And welcome!