service

Research University, Now With Words

I am at a major public research university. Sure, this is a university and teaching is important, for some definitions of important; anyone who says that research does not beat teaching to a pulp is a liar.

Bringing in extramural funding is the most important metric in most STEM fields. It translates into overhead dollars for the university. It also generally translates into high-profile work, for money means you are doing work that is “hot” and also money can pay for a lot of smart students and postdocs who actually do the work in many fields (with the exception of math and some fields like theoretical physics and computer science). The most highly paid and most coveted members of the faculty are those who do flashy, news-worthy, high-profile work. [Between research productivity and  funds raised is an implication (–>) rather than equivalence (<–>), i.e. money is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for high productivity or flashy papers; there is such a thing as having too much money to efficiently handle. But I digress.]

We are professors, yes, but our peers and our administration care about research almost exclusively. So, where do teaching and service come to play?

Teaching has to be good. If it is bad, you will not get tenure. It has to be decent. But, anything better than decent, unless it is at the level of prestigious national teaching awards, is not rewarded. Being better than a decent teacher is all on you, and feel free to do it if it makes you feel good. But, if you are doing a better-than-passable job, people may (as I know from experience) ask what it is that you are not doing instead when you are wasting time on this silly teaching business. Not all colleagues are like that; in fact I have several in the department who really value and do an excellent job of teaching while also having some political gravitas. However, for the most part, spending considerable time on teaching is looked down upon by the most-research-productive colleagues, who sometimes consider teaching a nuisance that should be minimized or avoided to the extent possible.

ValueTeaching

For example, when I told a colleague that I give 3 midterms, hour-long and in-class, over the standard 2 longer evening exams (more frequent exams are less nerve-wrecking for the students because their grade does not hinge on any one exam so much, and it’s also less daunting for me to grade so I do it faster and they get the results sooner), the colleague told me that I must have too much time on my hands; he, who apparently must be the yardstick by which all workload is to be measured, has only one midterm (this is way too few for undergrads, in my opinion). So it’s not “you do this, I do that,” it’s an explicit statement that me doing something that I feel benefits the students is indicative of an unforgivable professional deficiency (not being busy enough). The same colleague told me “That’s loser talk” a few years ago when I complained that a grant was unjustly slaughtered in review (likely by this guy); needless to say, I am not discussing grants with that colleague again.

People who run very large groups and raise a lot of money generally have very hectic travel schedules and are overall very busy. I know from what students tell me that it translates into many cancelled and rescheduled classes, which is probably not a big deal for graduate students, but it is for undergrads, whose days are usually packed to bursting with classes, labs, project group meetings, and often part-time work. The extremely busy colleagues would often love to have the absolute minimal teaching load, and perhaps they should, for everyone’s benefit.

What about service? There are some important service assignments, and I understand and endorse that they have to be done. Many of them have to be done by faculty (e.g. serving on PhD dissertation committees, or tenure and promotion committees). My beef with service is threefold. First, there are people who really do the fewest and the lightest assignments; they tend to be either among the very high performers or, unsurprisingly, among the very poor performers (deadwood) who have mentally checked out. My second beef is that there are many committees that are pointless because what is needed is money, but the money is not forthcoming; while meeting to brainstorm and bloviate may appease whomever because it seems like something is happening, nothing really is, so the whole thing is a time-wasting charade. Third, service doesn’t do anything for an individual’s career unless it is a formal administrative position (e.g. you serve as department chair), and even so the gains appear… dubious.

The most aggravating part of life at an R1 university is that, during the semester, teaching and service can easily eat up your entire work week. I have several student papers to edit, I haven’t been able to get to them in way longer than I would like. We are dealing with a completely nuts situation, in which much of the core university mission work (teaching, service) takes up so much time that, if you are at all conscientious, your research — the only part that can potentially advance your career — suffers terribly; if you don’t want to neglect your research (or your career in general), you shaft the core mission or your personal life, usually both.

I don’t think faculty are at fault here. People do what is expected of them, and smart people read expectations very well.

The Curse of ATTTS

>>   Dear undergrad: You come to class irregularly and don’t come to discussion because you have team meetings for another class seemingly non-stop. You submit homework intermittently. After you had come to inform me how much more important that other class is to you than mine, you asked me to move the time and day when the homework is usually due so that I can even better accommodate your schedule for this other class. My response?

*crickets*

 

>> I have lost another colleague to the curse of ATTTS (Administrators Taking Themselves Too Seriously).

We are having way too many faculty meetings, one every week. They run for 2 hours each and it’s a waste of time, especially in the midst of the proposal-writing season for most of us. My class somewhat overlaps with the meetings, so I am always late. The other day, I was on my way to the meeting at about 30 min past, when I ran into a colleague who was already leaving the meeting; the colleague informed me the meeting was still in full swing, but that they had to leave. I jokingly pleaded “Take me with you!!!” to which the colleague responded “Oh, it’s not that bad.” The colleague had recently taken up a college-level admin position and the Koolaid has apparently been overflowing their glass. I remember a time not that long ago when the colleague  would have smiled or laughed at the joke, or even commiserated at the thought of yet another meeting. The colleague has since been fully assimilated and, I fear, can never go back to being a real professor. (By the way, the meeting was deathly boring, with the same old characters droning; even though I was late, I left early because I had way too much work to do, and  nothing was getting done. Life is too short anyway to spend listening to people’s verbal onania).

I really hate meetings. That’s probably because too many meetings are poorly run, don’t stay on target, go overtime, and don’t accomplish anything. So I avoid them like a plague. When I am in charge of a committee, I do as much as humanly possible via email and only meet occasionally when the amount of material or the way it needs to be handled is such that it’s more efficient to meet once and knock it all off the list at once. Enjoying daily meetings, which admins do, is completely alien to me. I am now confident that I will NEVER be an administrator, because I would be a really bad one, unable to keep any of the Koolaid down.

There are two types of time I devote to work:

1. Prime time, the large blocks of time when I am at work and fully alert, during the day or early evening. This is the time when I read papers, write manuscripts and proposals, meet individually with my students, essentially do my science. I also prep for classes and teach during this time, create exams, and review other people’s papers and proposals. I am extremely protective of my limited prime time.

2. Not-exactly-prime time, which would be the time when I am tired in the evening, or small amounts of time on the weekend or during the work week, which are insufficient to do a large amount of work that requires creativity or deep focus. This is the time when I grade exams, prepare homework or write solutions, organize upcoming travel, file for travel reimbursement, do the budget or boilerplate for proposal submissions. I might also write letters of recommendation or sometimes finalize reports for manuscript review. If at all possible, I try to schedule most meetings during not-exactly-prime time, since prime time is sacred.

Now that I think of it, my ATTTS-afflicted colleague has always displayed just a little too much tolerance for meetings, while  writing papers or proposals together was just not a very high priority; it seems that a lot of stupid non-research stuff has always cluttered the colleague’s schedule. Perhaps the colleague had been running out of research breath for a while and this might be a natural consequence. I, however, find that I am in better scientific shape than ever, have more and better ideas, am writing better papers and proposals and doing it faster than before, and am feeling bold and confident.

I am not saying admin work is not important. It is, and someone has to do it.
I just don’t understand a scientist who prefers this work to actual science. And who so readily morphs into  a full-fledged Koolaid abuser.

Editorial and Professorial Nuggets

—  I am an associate editor of a specialized disciplinary journal. I try my best to include junior researchers (postdocs, young profs or nonacademic scientists, even some senior graduate students) as reviewers when I know they do good work based on what I have heard or seen them present at conferences. It turns out, a surprisingly high number of people cannot write a review to save their life. Some of them are junior, so they have the excuse of inexperience, but some should really know better.

I get these cryptic two-line reports with a recommendation to reject. WTF? That is not a report. I cannot send that on to authors, it gives me a basis for nothing. Especially if you are going to reject, you better give clear reasons for doing so.  Even if the paper is crap, it usually (although not always) presents a considerable amount of work by the authors. If the paper sucks, tell them precisely why it sucks and how much it sucks, so they would know whether to try and fix it or that there is no hope and they should drop it.

How does one learn to write referee reports? Well, when it comes to my students, I send them samples of my reports to look at (ranging from minor revisions to rejections). But, one first and foremost learns from the reports received of one’s own papers. Which is why I wonder, especially for senior folks, how unobservant and unable to generalize they are,  that they cannot figure out what is to be done based on their own experiences with being on the receiving end of reports.  These are all skills necessary for doing science, how is it possible not to apply them when learning how to write reports?

— There are career editors and then there are editors who are practicing scientists. Either way, the longest part of the review-and-publication process should be the actual peer review. It should not be the time taken by the editorial office staff to check the formatting; it should similarly not be the time the editor takes to make a decision and transmit the referee comments to the authors after the peer review has been completed. I have found myself dreading submission to certain journals, because I know a paper in a certain field will go to a certain editor, and the editor has a habit of just sitting on the paper for days or weeks on end, both when it comes to making referrals and when it comes to making a decision (the time they take doesn’t seem to correlate at all with how hand-wringing the decision-making process might be; hearing about “major revisions” appears to take just as much time as receiving “publish as is”.

For editors who are practicing scientists, why do people take on this role if they are not committed to doing a good job? I know, becoming an editor in a good journal is an honor, but it’s also a job, and an important one. And part of doing it well also means doing it fast. I know some great associate editors who handle dozens of new papers per week very efficiently. But then there are others. And I wish someone gave them a kick in the pants so they’d finally get going.

Yes, I am very impatient. But you can bet that I am very efficient as associate editor.

— In professorial news, once again, the biggest problem of my undergrads is that they don’t know the math that they should know. They don’t have the facility with basic calculus, let alone analytic geometry. While some fairly complicated concepts can be hand-waved down to the levels of calculus or geometry, it’s of little use because these concepts, which should have been internalized long ago, appear only vaguely familiar to students as opposed to being tools wielded with confidence. Part of it, at my university, is the ever-shrinking list of required math courses so students could all get as many free electives as possible (?!); that’s because students feeling warm and fuzzy upon having customized their studies to the point of senselessness  beats actually getting a solid education in the major. The worst thing is the students’ attitude that this insistence on calculating stuff, on — gasp! — using math, is somehow unnecessary and is in the way of actual real knowledge. They want to make it go away and get to the good stuff. They cannot. I am all for pictures and analogies and building one’s intuition. I draw in class more than I write equations. But this is fairly high-level stuff, and the intuition has to be already honed by both math and experience with other similar problems. Students cannot expect everything worth knowing as a senior in a physical science discipline to just be qualitative or requiring no more than arithmetic and high-school algebra. I am really tired of having to apologize for what is really not particularly high-level math that they should be proficient in anyway.

People Who Are Soooooooo Much Busier Than You

A colleague once told me this great Chinese proverb:

“Time is like water in a sponge; if you try really hard, you can always squeeze out some more.”

So very true. People will always find the time for the things they want to do, end of story. If you can’t find the time for something, that just means you don’t actually want to do it. At least, I am like that and I assume others are as well; after all, it wouldn’t be a proverb for nothing.

In professional communication, saying “I’m too busy” is often a perfectly fine euphemism for “I don’t really want to do this thing right now (or possibly ever), sorry.” After all, a lot of academic work is work for free (refereeing papers, partaking on conference program committees) or for absolutely minimal compensation (e.g. serving on NSF panels, proposal review), and just because I ask for something doesn’t mean that you have to care enough to try to find the time.

But when you are too busy to look at a paper on which you are a coauthor, to which you contributed infinitesimally yet don’t have the courtesy to take self off the author list?
That’s just being a pub-blocking douche. Know that I hate your guts for it. Either $hit or get off the can — comment promptly or say it’s fine to go as is.

I hate the people who go around bolstering about how busy they are and who generally busy themselves with the business of out-busying everyone. For some, it’s a way to show that they are superior and more in demand than you. Maybe for some it’s a way to hide the fact that they are not actually all that busy. And I am sure for many that means they don’t have their priorities straight and/or are inefficient; working with them drives me bonkers.

There is a guy I know from graduate school who has for years now been going progressively more and more on my fuckin’ nerves about his busyness.
A few weeks ago he sent me an email devoted entirely to how unbelievably busy he was; it was a full paragraph, multiple-sentences long,
but without a single punctuation mark. Apparently, when you get to be really truly busy, punctuation has to go. Before you think he had some unusual crunch at work, he didn’t. The email content was the same as ever. He works for a company, as do many other people, but he works from home, has no kids, and is part of a dual career couple; when he’s not whining about how much busier than everyone else on Earth he is, he takes long vacations in exotic places. So waaaaah, waaaah, cry me a fuckin’ river.

When I was in grad school, my PhD advisor had a big group. He and a few other faculty had an administrative assistant, C, who was the most efficient and organized person I had ever met in my life: Whatever any of the students or faculty needed, she did impeccably, never needed to be asked twice, and she never actually looked busy. In contrast, the department chair’s secretary was ironically one of the worst assistants in the department (so said everyone), and was constantly dying under the piles of paperwork; you routinely had to ask her twice or three times to get anything done, and things were often wrong. This was a perfect example of busyness being anti-correlated with doing anything useful.

I have some collaborators who are very difficult when it comes to scheduling anything, nominally willing, but each meeting requires me to endlessly wait to hear back from them and people exchanging numerous emails. If I say what everyone is thinking “You know, you don’t actually want to schedule this, why don’t I do it without you as I see fit, and you do whatever it is that you prefer doing,” then I am too impatient, too emotional, and generally not academic-politics-savvy. Some friends are like that too; it takes many weeks so schedule a dinner. WTF? Why is it such a big deal? Just pick a night and come over, why does it have to be so complicated? Or should I again assume you don’t actually want to do this, ever?

The thing is, the proverb above definitely works for me. When something is important, I will make the time. I have a small number of very high, ironclad priorities, and I will make time for them at the expense of a whole bunch of other $hit, probably more so now than before tenure. I have colleagues who have some sort of priority-insensitive pipeline; things just get into the pipeline and then get tended to when they get tended to. Nope, not here. Submitting grant applications is an intermittent but very important and time-sensitive priority, it bumps everything else. Not so time sensitive, but no less important, is editing papers to submit sooner rather than later; it bumps a whole bunch of other stuff down or off the pipeline. Seeing my students when they need to talk to me is a very high priority. In general, anything that’s instrumental to the careers of junior people whom I support is a high priority [e.g. promptly writing letters of recommendation for my trainees; promptly responding with my availability (or lack thereof) when someone else’s student needs to schedule PhD defense]. During the semester, teaching is a very high priority (emails, homework assignment and solutions postings, exam grading).

Also, I don’t procrastinate with the stupid $hit that is key to getting the important things done and off the table, like returning proof corrections. It drives me crazy when people sit on them for a week — just read through the damn thing and send it in! In general, our job offers plenty of busy work that is necessary to complete in order for the harder, intellectually demanding work to get done. A good example is doing the proposal boilerplate (biosketch, budget and budget justification, data management statement, equipment description, etc.); I kinda enjoy working on the boilerplate, as it’s like foreplay before getting to the hard stuff  (see what I did there?).

The tl;dr version of this post is — I kind of hate you if you constantly complain that you are busy. I think you are either not busy but lying, seeking to get the upper hand/admiration, or just don’t have the guts to tell me that you don’t want to do what I asked. In the off chance it’s none of the three, you need to get shit together and get your priorities straight and get organized. Especially if other people’s education and careers depend on you.

Busy

Disenfranchised

Over the decade that I have spent in my home department, I have witnessed several faculty colleagues retire. A number retired in their 60’s or 70’s; they had been active in research and faculty governance till the very last day, but were forgotten soon thereafter and are hardly ever mentioned today. Their labs were given to others and the department life went on. Each such retirement reminds me that, no matter how much you give to your work, your work will take it all, scoff at you for not giving more, then turn on its heal and walk away without so much as a thank you.

Then there were a few who retired much younger, with 10 or more good professorial years remaining. Their academic stories are not happy.

There are people in the department for whom no one among the colleagues seems to care. Everyone considers them deadwood, inactive researchers, generally someone most wish they could get rid of. These people wield no power in the department political arena. In whispers, they are described to junior faculty as irrelevant, so the younglings would learn not  to mind them either.

Among these tenured-but-disenfranchised academics, some are a real net drain on the department as they don’t do research, teaching, or service well at all, so it’s really hard to find any redeeming qualities. These extremes are very, very, VERY rare, and ironically show no interest in early retirement.

But most simply run low on external funds, while remaining good and engaged teachers. They often take on a heavy service load, doing laborious tasks that benefit the whole department. These people deserve more gratitude and respect than they are given.

One such colleague recently retired. My guess is that he’s no more than 55 years old. I never got to know him well, but he must have been a quality researcher once upon a time at least, or else he would not have gotten tenure. In recent years, I watched him try — and fail — to get some more meaty service and administrative roles; the writings on the wall was that the department had given up on him. At that point, his main flaw was that he did theoretical work for which there had never been a huge amount of funding available, the well had since run dry, and he hadn’t been able (or willing) to successfully switch fields to a more lucrative one. A few other “shinier” faculty were brought in from the outside into his area, so he slowly became wholly marginalized. Over the past couple of years I can’t say I ever saw him in faculty meetings. The department gave up on him, communicated it loudly and clearly, until he gave up on the department, too, and left.

I wish him well in whatever he does next.

It’s sobering to see what can happen in nominally harmonious departments. Sure, nobody quarrels, everything is very civilized and outwardly friendly. We just shut people out of the decision-making process, and take away their abilities to contribute or advance in ways that don’t involve external cash precisely because they don’t bring in enough external cash. No need to abolish tenure; we can’t formally fire them, but we are apparently very good at making them want to leave.