kids

Embrace the Leapfrog

Another day, another NSF grant rejection.

Scores were E, V, V, V (E=excellent, V=very good). I haven’t seen the report yet, they probably won’t show up till next week.

The scores are only a little better than last year, although I thought the proposal itself was MUCH better than last year.

(Update: Did get the reviews, really very positive. Still no dice.)

Oh, well. Off to lick wounds and edit a student’s paper.

To that end, some levity.

*****

(Middle Boy says he came up with these on his own, but he might be fibbing.)

Joke 1: Germanium, nickel, uranium, and sulfur worked together on a science project. It was GeNiUS!

Joke 2: I was going to work on my science homework, but then I thought, “NaH…”

(He drew a box around each symbol, like in the periodic table, with Na saying sodium and H saying hydrogen).

By the way, Middle Boy is 9. The Nerd Force is strong with the young one!

****

$hit my students recently wrote in drafts of technical manuscripts:

Point 1 is no secret

One of the first orders of business  was to determine…

This is surely the handiwork of [a physical phenomenon, i.e., something decidedly without hands or the ability to come up with evil plots]

It is possible to judge… using the squint test, squinting at thousands of plots is tiring on the eyes…

and my favorite

[B]y embracing the leapfrog nature [of an explicit algorithm for solving partial differential equations]…

Clearly, this (rough, pen only) drawing had to happen:

EmbraceLeapfrog

Embrace the (giant) leapfrog!

 

 

Musings on Coaching and Advising

As I wrote the other day, Eldest spends a lot of time swimming and the team he is on is very serious and successful. When compared to the best swimmers, he definitely has considerably less experience and his technique needs work. What I know is that he started swimming seriously in September, he’s a little above average for his age but below average for his very strong team. The good thing is that there are many things that he could still fix to become better.

However, I have no idea how talented he is, i.e. where the limits of his potential may be. I don’t think we are looking at the next Michael Phelps, but my impression, based on where he was when he started and where he is now, is that he could definitely make a solid, middle-of-the-pack team member throughout  high school. That is, provided that he has some good coaching, i.e. that his club coach and/or his high school coach spend some time working with him.

The problem is that all coaches seem to want to work with talented kids whom they see as potential stars, especially the kids who have shown very early promise. When you see someone who’s just starting and they are older than the common beginner, that someone might a priori be disregarded as not worth the investment because they have a nontraditional age-to-skill relationship. We have that in academia, don’t we?

I played volleyball for a local club when I was growing up (also for my high school when needed) from about 12-13 to maybe 19 or 20. On a semi-pro team that we sometimes played against (they kicked our butts every time) there was a woman who was in her late 20’s or early 30’s and she was very good.  I remember she had streaks of grey hair, although she wasn’t old at all.  What I also remember about her is that we heard stories about how she hadn’t started to play volleyball until she was 18, considerably older than average. But I remember someone saying that when you start as an older teen/young adult, you have the ability to improve much faster than you do as a teen. I don’t know if this is true or if it holds for only select sports, but it stayed with me.

Which brings me to advising graduate students. Many professors, regardless of how good their institution is, lament the quality of PhD applicants and think they’d do amazing things if only they had better students. The most important thing about being a professor in a STEM field that requires working with graduate students is learning how to effectively advise the students you have rather than the students you wish you had. Perhaps equally important is realizing that there is no such thing as a perfect student, that every student has a lot to learn, and that many (most?) students have something good to offer. Presumably similar to what coaches of a team do, you as advisor need to learn what  your student’s strengths and weaknesses are and work with them accordingly: pick a project that employs their strengths but also forces them to grow in the directions where they need help. A talented student could do many projects well, for a less talented one you might have to eliminate certain options. There are projects that could be done by many different students, then there are those that await someone with a very special skill set or affinity.

Sometimes a student who had shown great promise proved to be uncoachable, improving very little outside of the initial areas of strength,  because they they didn’t want to listen to me and didn’t think what I said was actually important. On the other hand, I was surprised several times by what some students could pull off within a year or two, after they’ve gained some experience and confidence. More than once, a student who had started out quite wobbly subsequently found his or her legs, and was then able to metaphorically outrun those who initially looked much stronger.

In academia, there are many students who are talented enough. If they want to listen, and they work with an invested advisor, they can improve and grow to become very good.

Eldest works hard in practice, so I hear. I think he realizes that he might not be very prominent on the coaches’ radars and might have to be proactive about getting feedback. I’m hoping he gets some quality coaching despite the lack of preparation.

Whiplash and Thoughts on Achievement

I saw “Whiplash“. It’s awesome. This is what its IMDB blurb says:

A promising young drummer enrolls at a cutthroat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.

This movie got me thinking, again, about talent vs hard work, external pressure vs internal drive.

Eldest has been swimming and enjoying the team experience. He’s getting better, but he’s not very fast, and his technique needs considerable work (all the swim lessons he had as a kid are worth next to squat, it seems). But he’s been enjoying it and the team is very supportive.

When I watch him, my inner ultracompetitive workaholic  monster scientist wakes up. I look at him and at the other swimmers, and I scrutinize what he’s done or not done. I look at the mechanics of their strokes, when they turn, how long they glide before resuming with strokes. There are kids with beautiful technique, lots of experience, and presumably natural ability. There are other kids who may not swim much, but are into other sports and are generally athletic, and that control over the body appears to translate between sports (a number of winter swimmers also run track in the fall). Moreover, it seems like other kids with comparable swim experience to Eldest’s are better in part because they are very focused and because they are pushing themselves as far as they will go. My kid seems distracted at the start, and often seems as if he’s almost swimming leisurely. But perhaps I am being unfair and he’s doing all he can. It’s tough being the son of a pain-in-the-butt mom. I didn’t think I would be that mom. But I was always very competitive myself and I don’t like how much this swimming business upsets me.

Eldest doesn’t particularly care for my insights. I am no coach, and he tells me as much, but even I can tell that there are issues with his dive and his turns, plus his arms are not as straight as those of the fastest kids. But, there are many swimmers on the team and the season is too short for him to receive individualized attention. Or maybe they are selective about who receives their attention.

Anyway, I am focusing on keeping my mouth shut and letting Eldest do his thing. But boy, do I wish he had more of a competitive, go-getter streak. Not just in swimming, but anything really. I need to curb my extreme A-type-ness in order not to smother and alienate Eldest, who appears more laid back. I am aware of this difference between us, and I work on keeping my mouth shut. The problem is that there is always this tiny voice that wonders what if we’d just nudged him more earlier, maybe he’d be better at some things and maybe even grateful down the line… I told you, it’s not easy being the kid of an A-type mom. (Now imagine if I didn’t have my own demanding career and was thus free to pour all of my ambitions into my kids… Now that’s a truly scary thought.)

Back to “Whiplash”. The music school teacher is abusive in every sense — physically, verbally, emotionally. He’s a manipulative jerk. But, apparently, he believes that’s the way to entice greatness, by building up and breaking down those with potential, as he feels those with true greatness would not be deterred by abuse and would instead only work harder and harder in the face of adversity. I don’t know about that; in the process of uncovering a rare gem via great abuse, many will completely wash out and possibly kill themselves.

We see the lead character, a 19-year-old drummer, work obsessively and push himself to the limits (Bandaids are apparently a key part of equipment for drummers). That’s inner drive. What I still don’t know is whether or not it is possible to ignite that spark in someone who doesn’t already possess it. Sure, you can push and pressure kids while they are little, but at some point they will rebel unless what they are pushed to do is what they actually want to to do.

My DH and I don’t push our kids very much, and I wonder if we are mistaken. We are lazy  parents and let them chill. But at some point achievements start to count and you see that your kid might be behind because you didn’t know you were supposed to start pushing them much earlier. And does it make sense to insist if a kid doesn’t have talent? And who decides who has talent? I can judge talent for math and science and perhaps to a small degree art, but not much else. We all know “10% inspiration, 90% perspiration”, but what if the inspiration or natural ability are just not there?

Sort of like in this great old comic by SMBC:

That guy has 17 special talents. This other guy, not a single one.

Most people are unremarkable. Some, perhaps many, are marginally remarkable, at the level of high school or college or some professional community. None would be the wiser if most of us hadn’t been born at all. When you think about it, it’s quite depressing.

Sometimes I think the best thing I can do for my kids is to leave them alone to relax and enjoy their childhood with minimal stress and structure. Then they want to swim in high school and we see we are years behind the ideal time when one should have started with these activities, but we didn’t because my kid would not hear of competing during the many years I asked, then when he got around to wanting to compete, he turned out he was not the fastest guy around. What I need is a time machine to bring his current self to talk to his 5th or 6th grade self and make himself start to swim seriously. Also, I need a crystal ball to see when I will need the same type of intervention with the younger two kids and for which sport.

One thing that the teacher in “Whiplash” said was that “Good job” were the worst two words in the English language, because they encourage passivity. I tend to agree that they are overused, and that there is great focus on just showing up and putting in half-assed effort. Effort is a necessary but not sufficient condition for achievement.

I have a collaborator who dishes continuous praise to graduate students, for even the most idiotic of achievements (“You printed these 3 figures so you’d show them to us? Good job!”) There is no need to be abusive, but I don’t praise my graduate students until they have actually done something worth praising, something that took both effort and skill. Usually, when the materials are starting to come together for our first joint paper is when a student might expect to hear “Well done!” I might also praise for unusually good performance, when someone does someone much faster than expected, or shows uncommon creativity, originality, or initiative. So no, I am not an over-praiser because that cheapens true achievement, but I am not a praise-miser either.

Also, never outside of the US have I heard kids say so often and with such conviction “I am not good at x,” where x is something that they tried once or not at all. With my own kids, it gets on my nerves a lot that there are so many things they give up on before even seriously trying, and I don’t know how to fix that. I keep talking to them, that they just have to keep trying and they will keep getting better. It often falls on deaf ears.

But, on the other hand, many undergraduate students (and my own Eldest on occasion) have this idea that putting in great but perhaps misplaced effort is somehow supposed to be valued the same as achievement. Sometimes I get this as part of teaching evaluation, that I assign a lot of work and that the grade doesn’t reflect the amount of effort the student put in. The grade reflects what you have shown in terms of mastery. If you are between grades, sure, it may tip you over towards the higher one if you are a really hard worker, but hard work alone is not enough. You have to also work smart. If you don’t know how, you have to know to ask for help, as much help as needed until you crack the code of what the best way to apply effort is. That’s why people have coaches and advisors and supervisors…

I find that in trying to understand my kids I have serious limitations by simply being myself. I want to support their efforts and encourage them when they waver. But there is support and encouragement, and then there’s unwelcome pressure. The problem is that they can seem very alike.

Then there is just letting kids be. I grew up like that and it turned out I was plenty driven, but how to best parent the kids who may not be? What happens with the kids who are not driven themselves and who are also not pushed externally? Does everyone eventually find something they are passionate about? The world doesn’t wait for the indecisive to decide, and before you know it, it’s college admission time.

How do you determine that an effort is worth pursuing? That it’s something where you have the potential to be excellent, rather than barely above average with tremendous sweat? How do you decide you truly have no real ability versus that you would really get good with more effort? Where is the line between encouraging and badgering?

At my advanced age, I have found that I am doing better work than ever and am being more creative. Part is that I am finally believing that I am allowed to be here and do the things I do. I actually know that I can do this job and now I can, more often than not, actually summon this intellectual awareness to combat bouts of impostor syndrome. I have sufficient track record, so I finally have some confidence. I still think I am not at the tippity top, but with increased confidence the quality of the papers I publish has been steadily increasing and I am finally getting to the point of being bold and brave with my submissions, as opposed to conservative.  I have done a lot of work to earn my confidence. I envy those who were confident to begin with. Maybe that’s what having real talent means, never doubting that you will be successful (although considering how prevalent it is in dudes of certain demographics as opposed to others, I would say good old patriarchy has its hands in it, as well). I know the insecurity has been a driver for me, to get better and achieve. But now success is a different kind of driver, in that my appetites have increased. I think a good combo of external discouragement (leading to stubbornness, keeping at it and improving) and encouragement (leading to boldness and increasing ambition) may be the right thing leading to increasing performance. You need to grow your dreams, but you also have to grow the skills to match the ambition.

Wisdom

Teeth, that is.

I grew up in a country where fluoride in water was not the norm. Also, I have to admit my primary family probably did not instill very good oral hygiene habits. I ended up losing a couple of permanent teeth as a preteen or early teenager to decay. By the time I was out of my teens, I had realized on my own that I should be doing much more for my teeth, I learned what I could, and adopted better preventative practices. The dentists I saw were not warm or fuzzy, but rather unpleasant, brutish, and condescending (as were the medical doctors where I grew up). I didn’t know there was such a thing as teeth cleaning until I came to the US; none was ever offered to me by any of the dentists I saw. I don’t think it was even part of the practice back then, I am not sure if it is now.

When I came to the US as a graduate student on crappy bare-bones covers-nothing insurance, not even getting cleaning or X-rays were covered and were thus very expensive out-of-pocket expenses. Since I’ve had a proper job, I have been extremely vigilant about my teeth and the teeth of my kids. As a result, while I don’t have the perfect American teeth, they are in decent shape, especially considering their initial condition. I am lucky that my teeth are nice and straight (no braces); I also have all of my wisdom teeth.

My vigilance extends to the teeth care of my kids, who brush and floss religiously, and I am proud to report that none of them have ever had any cavities.  Eldest will be 15 in couple of months; by that age I had already lost a couple of molars to decay, which is a real shame.

While dental care is in principle phenomenal in the US, the costs are exorbitant and not as accessible as it could or should be. I must say that I really dislike US dentists as a profession, but for different reasons than those from my ancestral home country. Sure, American dentists (and I saw dentists in 3 states) are pleasant and polished, if hurried. What I hate is that they all seem like ruthless deceitful sharks the moment we discuss anything other than routine cleaning, pushing costly and perhaps unnecessary procedures that help line the pockets of their specialist brethren.

Here’s an example. When Eldest was little, maybe 7 or 8, the dentist said he had too much room in his mouth for all the teeth so he would have to go to have his jaw surgically treated to reduce space. Husband and I thought that was stupid and didn’t do anything.

It’s years later, Eldest grew and is probably nearing his final height and head size. Now that same dentist says that his wisdom teeth don’t have enough room (see the irony of supposedly having had a too-wide-a-jaw previously), that the bottom ones are impacted and need to be taken out.

I am no dentist, but I looked at the X-ray and it looks the top ones will be out fine, and the bottom ones seem like they are not terribly impacted, the teeth are not completely formed, and he is still growing.

When Eldest had his latest X-rays (why once a year? All those X-rays seem really unnecessary), then there was half-an-hour of relentless propaganda between the dentist and even more the hygenist who worked on Eldest, about how 98% of all kids have their wisdom teeth removed, how everyone’s doing it, when you don’t have wisdom teeth then there are no issues with cleaning them that far in the back, they are prone to decay so you need to be out with them. Of course, conveniently across the parking lot is a dental surgery center.

Am I the only one who thinks this is idiotic, doing surgery to pull out the teeth of a not-yet 15-year-old while they are still in the bone? I did some research, and while the recommendations seem to be more along the lines of leave them alone in Europe, the US practice is to preventatively take them out. I generally believe strongly that getting rid of body parts without a good reason (a good reason being that they are diseased, causing pain, endangering well-being) is just wrong.  Why don’t we just cut out everyone’s  appendix? [Yes, I am also very strongly against circumcision. People in the US sure circumcise their boys supposedly to help prevent urinary infections, but that’s bull$hit for any developed nation (continental Europe rarely circumcises), and for most people the real reason is tradition more than anything else (either religion or the simple “dad is circumcised, so the son should be too”).]

Oral surgery is serious surgery, I cannot believe it’s a good idea to do routinely. The problem is that I don’t trust my dentist’s recommendation, but it’s not like any other general dentists I have ever seen in the US have been trustworthy. I always feel they are trying to pull a fast one. Several times, this happened to my husband “All is fine, (6 mo later) all is fine, (6 mo later) all is fine, (6 mo later) oops we need a root canal here, and since you have a root canal the tooth is brittle so we better do a crown too.” And you are out a few thousand dollars and thinking WTF, why didn’t they catch it sooner before it became so bad to need a root canal? What’s the point of these 6-month visits and stupid goddamn X-rays all the time?

Based on my experience, general dentists definitely seem to be a little to happy to lean towards the costly procedures. Similarly, I have no doubt oral surgeons advocate for routine removal of wisdom teeth from every human, because that’s a steady revenue stream.

So how do I get an opinion on my son’s wisdom teeth from someone who is not just looking to rip me off or enable their colleague across the parking lot to rip me off?

What do you say, my American readers? Do you have your wisdom teeth? How about your kids? Do you regret keeping them/taking them out? What made you decide one way or another (for yourselves or your kids)?