work-life balance

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.

Navel Gazing: On Energy

In a comment to a recent post of mine, Zinemin asked  (and Ana seconded):
I have a question for you. I would be really curious to read what you would say about the topic of energy, since this is something I am currently thinking about.
It is clear that you operate on a very high level of energy. Most people would be overwhelmed doing a quarter of what you do. Why do you think you have such high energy? Is this genetic? Your upbringing? Very high motivation? Your way of thinking about things?
Have you had phases with low energy? Do you feel like you are “using up” your energy over the years, or do you have some way to replenish it?
I am asking this because I feel like I have used up a lot of energy over the years I spent in science and it is only slowly coming back, and I am not sure if I will ever be at the level that I was before. You however seem like you must have only become more energetic with time…. maybe it is like in sports. Some athletes have ruined their knee at 28, others are still successful at 40, and maybe it is small differences in how they move and how they manage themselves that make all the difference….”

I don’t know how I seem to people who only know me from my writing on the blog. Sometimes, when I read some very old posts, I wonder “Who the hell wrote this? This sounds nothing like me.” To be honest, I don’t think I am particularly energetic at all; I actually think I am quite lazy. I am not a poster child for anything really. Plenty of what I talk about falls under “Do as I say, not as I do.”

The way I envision a successful and respectable academic is someone who is lean and healthy, eats organic food and is possibly vegetarian, drinks water and sometimes unsweetened tea (rarely coffee and never soda), gets plenty of sleep and gets up early to exercise (bike or run or swim for miles), comes into work and works with inspiration and creativity and 100% focus for 8-9 hours while bathing in exercise-induced endorphins, then leaves in the evening to spend time with their lovely family. This person has a great work-life balance, spending weekends on enriching activities with the kids, who also run and bike and eat their vegetables, even ask for seconds! Their house is immaculate, as is their office. Order is everywhere. They have a standing desk in the office. This person is very eloquent, even-keeled, and universally loved and respected. Their jokes are PG and don’t make anyone uncomfortable, ever.  This person has a knack for politics and would make a fabulous administrator if they ever chose to go that route. Everyone asks how they do such a marvelous job of being a scientist, teacher, parent, and adventurer.

I know a few such people. They are the ones who should be dispensing advice, but I would be very surprised to find that they read blogs. They also might well be from Mars, as far as I am concerned, because how they operate is very alien to me.

I am basically the polar opposite of the ideal academic, so you don’t want to emulate me. Even I don’t want to emulate me, but I have little choice in the matter. But, hopefully, this essay helps the likes of me a little bit.

I don’t sleep enough, and I don’t exercise. I should lose weight. I don’t run, bike, or swim. I eat everything, and with great gusto. All of my family eats meat. Our younger two kids barely eat any vegetables (not for lack of trying on our part, I promise). Coffee is almost as important as air to me (I drink tea only when ill or when completely out of coffee and too lazy to go buy some). I would say that any semblance of balance I have in my life is because I have a  family and kids don’t thrive on chaos: kids need regular meals and sleep and time with their parents (all our kids are healthy and smart and get lots of rest) , so I do work regular hours and I don’t work too much over the weekends, except at crunch time. When it’s crunch time, I can work like a maniac, 12-14 hours a day, 7 days a week; I am fortunate to have the stamina, I love every second of it, and crave being able to do more of it.  If I didn’t have a family, I would probably lead a very unbalanced and unhealthy life. My family weekends are embarrassingly low-key; we laze about in our pajamas and/or sweatpants, have kids over for playdates, and do chores (of late also chauffeur Eldest everywhere all the time; I am starting to appreciate the prospect of him driving at 16).  But DH and I are spread pretty thin and do what we can to steal some time for ourselves (individually and together). I have blogging, he has video games (hence the late bedtimes). We have a lot of chores between us.

Everyone in the academic enterprise is smart, and most people are smart enough to be successful. There is a great degree of luck in success, but personality also plays a role in how things turn out. There are a few aspects of my personality that I think have been useful for me to have. I am not saying they are necessary or even anywhere near ideal in general, but I think they are strongly correlated with my professional and personal standing (I am happy with both) in the overall mishmash that is my personality.

Accepting failure, embracing imperfection. First, I accept that nothing is perfect and I accept that I am imperfect and that I will fail at stuff (perhaps I anticipate failure to a fault). I think I have had this internalized since an early age. This enables me to be resilient, i.e. I do not get completely discouraged in the face of failure, and it the basis for my pigheadedness. Alas, this also means that I am probably too focused on the possibility of failure and am probably less bold in my professional life than I would be if I thought success were a virtual guarantee (I know several people whose self-confidence I wish I had; but then, they may simply be smarter and better at their job than me). Expecting the worst all the time does tend to wear you out. This is in no small part because of my upbringing; lots of gloomy specimens where I come from. But here’s an example of how tolerance of imperfection is a good thing. I used to smoke pretty heavily, and, like many smokers, tried to quit a number of times unsuccessfully, but I always knew that sooner or later I would have to quit. I quit when I got pregnant with baby No 1, then started again about 4 years later, but then about 1.5 years thereafter I quit for good after several fits and starts. During the 1.5 years, at some point I realized something had changed in me, and that I was seriously nearing quitting. I think you really need to get sick of yourself and your habit to do it. I quit for good after having started my faculty position 10 years ago and haven’t smoked since. In contrast, the guy whom I dated for years before I met my husband (15.5 years ago) and who was my smoker-buddy for much of my early twenties, still smokes. He has always waited for some sign from the heavens that he would be ready, because he said he wanted to be sure he would quit once and it would be for good, it would stick. He is a perfectionist all over, which got tedious and is one of the reasons we broke up. After years of him wanting for the stars to align perfectly (where we lived, where we worked) so we’d get on with our lives together or consider kids, at some point I said “Screw this” and I left him and the country. I am guessing stars haven’t aligned yet regarding his smoking either.

As I said above, when it comes to research, I operate in burst of high productivity followed by periods of near uselessness; at crunch time, the high-productivity periods involve long hours with high focus and feeling high on all the adrenaline. When I am feeling useless, I do all the other stuff like teaching, writing homework solutions, various service, book hotels and flights, reimbursement. I can do all these with very little intellectual engagement or inspiration, so I do them. That way I don’t feel like a total procrastinator and the times when I am in top form are spent on the tasks that require it. A big part is also knowing when you can perform intellectually demanding tasks and when you cannot. While I can write homework solution for an undergrad class or file for trip reimbursement even after not sleeping for 2 days, I cannot write a strong rebuttal to a scathing review or a competitive white paper for a funding solicitation without having my wits about. So I believe this also falls under working around imperfection: maybe Tuesday I have no inspiration for research, but I can do all this other crap. Or maybe I have to take a short nap in my office (I cannot stress enough the importance of a chair that’s conducive to napping. Clearly, I will never have a standing desk). But on Wednesday, I might crank out 1/3 of a brand new proposal and successfully troubleshoot with a grad student who had been stuck for weeks.

Restlessness/boredom and inability to adopt traditional organization paradigms. I am not sure this is a good or a bad thing, but it is a part of my personality, and a very important one. I have accepted it  and organized my life and my work around it. I get bored really, really easily, with everything. Every routine that I have ever come up with has to be rehashed frequently because I can’t take it. I can plan and pre-cook meals for a week in advance, but I will get bored with it after a few weeks, then will resort to spur-of-the-moment cooking during the week after work for a while even though it’s more tiring. There are people who are organized, make lists of everything and that works for them. Lists make me physically uncomfortable, because I have never been able to put in a list everything that goes in the crazy head, and trying to do that causes me discomfort; I use a calendar on the phone for things I will likely forget, like dentist appointments and student defenses, and set up two alerts for each, but the rest it just in my head, I can’t do lists.

I also cannot take too many standing long-term commitments (e.g. commit to a collaborative meeting every week on Thursday even though much of the time is wasted and is better spent me writing) because they cause me anguish and I bail on them (my long-term commitments begin and end with my family and my students). God knows it is unbelievably easy to get overcommited in academia because there are heaps of service to go around (some useful, much bullshit) and many people seem to feel useful when meetings happen, no matter how pointless or unproductive they are. I am a horrible meeting-avoider, so instead of bailing, I just automatically say no; indulging this aspect of my personality has done wonders for my happiness. (I also minimized seminar attendance. Sometimes, seminars are fun and useful. Often, they are not. It’s OK to miss them when they don’t seem of interest. It really is.)

Basically, I try to keep my schedule in flux as much as I can. Long term weekly commitments are: teaching, office hours (I cancel them if there’s no homework due or if we’d just had an exam), weekly faculty meeting (skipped when possible), once-a-month university meeting, and my weekly group meeting (skipped when overworked or students have exams or too many people out of town). Everything else is done via email, if possible, or scheduled on a need basis (PhD defenses) or only 0-2 days in advance (1-on-1 with students). I will absolutely not do long-term meeting commitments other than listed above. Instead of having my will to live killed by meetings, I have some big blocks of time to do writing and reading in, and am much better at keeping them uninterrupted then I was as a noob professor, even though I am much busier now.

There is an aspect that people sometimes ignore: people who have a lot of meetings or a lot of travel seem busy and very important. I used to spend a lot of time worrying about looking busy and important enough. I am mostly over it; yet, ironically, I am busier and more important than ever. But with fewer meetings.

Being in touch with what you want. This is really key for long-term sustainability of anything that you do. Being able to somehow sift though everything that you are supposed to want or be, and get to the bottom of what you really want. This can actually be very hard, and it’s not a straightforward process. And even if you know what you want, you may feel like you don’t have the right to go for it, or that it’s not the right time, or that your going for it will hurt someone (all of these have happened to me more than once). Even here it helps to take it easy on yourself and allow for imperfection; maybe you don’t know what you want today, but will in a few months. Maybe you don’t have the guts to go after what you want today, but you might later. I know that I generally always know, deep inside, what I want, but very often don’t act on it, and nearly 100% of the time I delay doing what I know is right (this is balanced by me speaking out sooner than ideal 100% of the time). But ultimately being able to take understand what you want and allow yourself to have it is critical for happiness.

OK, finally, the question of energy. As I said, I don’t think I am very energetic, maybe I just give off a different impression with my writing. I probably would have more energy with more exercise and a cleaner diet, devoid of stimulants like coffee. I have done that a few times, even lost like 30+ lbs on WW, but it was too restrictive and not a sustainable lifestyle for me. After 5 months I felt too deprived to continue and I went off the wagon, then because I’ve been-there-done-that my boredom issue kicked in, so I have never thereafter been able to get back on that same program. I will have to find a way to get more energetic and more fit without boredom or too much deprivation. At least temporarily. I will wrangle some unicorns while I am at it.

As for the energy to do work, people tell me it goes in cycles. I currently feel very good about my work (apparently, has been lasting for over a year now), after having made changes to my MO that I had long wanted to make but thought I shouldn’t. I dropped some collaborations, I dropped some research topics, and I started doing the work I was interested in with my students. Some of these collaborations used to come with meetings that I found tedious, useless, and requiring too much commitment from me. All these “droppings” had a profound effect on my motivation at work. A few years ago, I though I had completely lost my mojo and the professional future looked rather bleak, as in “Why am I doing any of this? Everything is stupid.” But then I realized I was doing way too much what I thought was expected of me and too little what I wanted. So at some point my feeling miserable overcame the anxiety about doing the wrong thing, and that finally gave me the courage to do what I wanted to do all along.

I think people often assume that there is a fault with the things that they want and they deny themselves (I am not talking about candy, although who doesn’t like candy? but things such as changing fields of research, or job, or partner). Sometimes what you want is hard to get or dangerous or imprudent, sometimes it hurts others, but if you are constantly feeling unhappy and tired, but are physically healthy, it’s worth asking whether there are things deep down that make you unhappy and that could be changed, and what the reasons are that you are not changing them.

For instance, I would like to live someplace warmer or where we have more friends. But, I like the department, I am respected, and after 10 years family and I are settled. This is the kids’ home. My husband loves his job. We have it good here. So I am ultimately OK with staying put and not acting on what I want, for now.

But chasing funding fads and not being able to catch my breath because I am constantly pursuing what others think is important as opposed to what I think is important? I have tenure now, I don’t actually have to do that. It used to make me deeply, profoundly unhappy, and it spilled into my personal relationships. So I went back to doing things my way, and even did some work where my personal style was applied to the topics others are interested in, which resulted in unexpectedly warm reception. In research, like in art, you have to be authentic: if you don’t burn with love for your work, no one else will.

So how do you replenish energy? Barring physical issues, I think the key is to understand what you really want, and identify what is stopping you from pursuing it: is the goal truly unrealistic (e.g. a 42-year-old woman playing in the NBA) or a little risky (changing jobs or careers) or at the level of disappointing someone (mom will question why you sunk all those years into a PhD or into a specific boy when nothing came of said PhD/boy)? Give yourself  the permission to go after as many of the things that you really want as you can, without putting anyone in jail or needlessly endangering anyone’s life, limb, sanity, or long-term well-being.

Dear readers, what helps you replenish energy? 

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 CHE: Retire Already!

By way of Undine, who blogs at”Not of General Interest,” I found this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article addresses academics retiring,  or, more precisely, not retiring early enough to make room for deserving up-and-comers. The whole piece is fairly obnoxious (“The Forever Professors: Academics who don’t retire are greedy, selfish, and bad for students”), but it brings up a couple of discussion-worthy points about teaching amidst the steady “kill the elderly” drumbeat.

The main premise of the article, which the author — herself a newly minted emerita — seems to espouse with suspiciously high enthusiasm, is that older academics owe it to others to retire: to the younglings waiting for tenure-track positions; to the poor departments whose budgets are drained by the high salaries of the oldies; to the apparently zombie-like students who crave exposure to the brains of young, fresh, energetic faculty.

No. No, older faculty do not owe their retirement to anyone. Why? First of all, if there’s one thing I learned in the US, it is that everyone looks out for themselves, and those who are concerned with societal benefits get called the s-word; older faculty should make their professional plans however it suits them, within the law. Secondly, for the most part those faculty who don’t want to retire are really energetic, sharp, and well-funded. I know a top-notch female scientist in her 80’s who would put me and any of my readers to shame with her globe-trotting schedule, the size and funding of her group, the number and variability of collaborations, and the publication output. I know a professor in his early 70’s whose recent graduate said that the professor was not just a very active septuagenarian, he was in fact the most active and energetic person of any age that the student had ever met. My PhD advisor is in his mid-70’s; he teaches, advises, travels, and publishes with enviable zeal, which I can only hope to have at his age.

Professors are blind to the incontrovertible fact that in the scheme of things, they are replaceable cogs who are forgotten the moment they are gone.” I don’t think this is true at all — the blindness — for anyone who has ever paid attention to what happens after people retire. Indeed, the second you are gone, nobody cares any more. Which is perhaps as it should be, and all to more reason not to choose to retire out of the goodness of your heart. Because no one will pat you on the back after you are gone.

“But ‘commitment to higher education’ covers some selfish pleasures. First, teaching is fun. It offers a sanctioned ‘low-level narcissism,’ as one friend put it, that’s hard to find anywhere else in life other than in show business.”

True, teaching is improv. Why exactly is it bad to find teaching, or improv, personally rewarding? There are plenty of narcissistic big mouths who enjoy the sound of their voice in corporate America and nobody begrudges them for bloviating. Why are academics supposed to teach for 100% altruistic reasons? Why would it be wrong to enjoy putting on a show? It sounds like great fun for everyone involved.

“Second, the continual replenishment, each autumn, of fresh-faced 18-year-olds causes the bulk of the professoriate to feel as if we are hardly aging at all.”

This is stupid and plainly incorrect. The fact that the kids in our classes are really young actually puts it clearly into perspective how old we are becoming. Parents of young kids everywhere will tell you the same thing. If anyone can delude themselves into thinking they’re beyond aging, it’s NOT the people constantly exposed to young humans. Or at least those among us with access to a mirror or the tiniest bit of self-awareness.

“Third, because teaching is part of a life of the mind, by teaching to 70 and beyond, professors feel they provide living proof, to anyone who might question them, that their minds remain sharp as tacks.”

And this is somehow supposed to be a reason to prevent them from teaching? It’s bad that they are not getting dementia, because we just can’t have sharp old people? For goodness sake.

“Finally, remaining within the confines of academe past 70 not only protects professors from the economic and professional uncertainties of life, but also substantially pumps up their wealth at the end of their careers.”

Seriously, the wealth of professors is the problem? Anyone in my field in industry will out-earn me within a couple of years of getting a PhD. Academics are middle class, and usually comfortably so, but it’s complete bull$hit to say that they are wealthy. And why is it that no one begrudges the wealth of dentists or physicians or lawyers, who all have graduate degrees and are all better paid than academics? Oh, yes, it’s the academics not doing anything useful again and, of course, tenure: nobody should be sheltered from the economic and professional uncertainties of life!!! How hypocritical that all this was written by a newly retired and presumably previously long-tenured professor .

The problem with teaching is that it offers an ongoing sense of redemption. In the real world, which you have now re-entered, if you muck up, there are consequences. In the university, you get a new semester to pretend nothing bad ever happened.”

Whoever wrote this appears to be staggeringly naive about university politics. Maybe you get a fresh crop of students to profess to each semester, but all your colleagues remain alongside you for several decades. If you think elephants have great memories, try tenured academics — they forget nothing. In these multidecade-long  professional relationships, the consequences of screwing up are real and serious. Sure, you may not get fired because of tenure, but you can get squeezed out of lab space, passed up for raises, ignored and disrespected in group meetings, so you will elect to leave or be miserable.

In my place of employment, plenty of people retire as soon as they can, move away from the cold, just go do something else. Those who don’t are generally very active in research, teaching, and service. We should leave them alone and let them do their jobs.

Temporary Work-Life Imbalance

I could not wait for Friday night this week. I am very tired.

I don’ think I have yet managed to get a hold of my schedule or my workload this semester at all. Pushing things to the sidelines because of the proposals just made everything worse, because the work never goes away. It just piles on, sitting there, waiting. And it didn’t help that I didn’t catch a break before the semester started. Now I need to find a way to recuperate and re-energize, the sooner the better, without any serious time off.

I know us folks with kids complain all the time how it’s hard, and we are busy with the kids, etc. It’s times like these, when I really need a breather, that make parenting tough. I wish I could say that I would just stay at home in my pajamas, watching TV all weekend. But weekends are kids’ time, and the kids have their own ideas on how all of us should be spending it. Plus there’s housework and just keeping it together so next week can go smoothly. If I need a day off, I have to take off work, which is really a terrible idea, not because I will get in trouble with my boss, but because I am the boss and the work never stops or lets up.

I am still digging myself out from underneath a mountain of service work. As evidenced by yesterday’s post, I have been writing letters of nomination and recommendation and reference and evaluation left, right, and center. Some of it is for the people I know well (e.g. my undergrad researcher applying to grad school), some is department service on behalf of worthy colleagues, but each new letter is a fair bit of work.  Also, I have something like 5 papers to review.  Why do I do that? Why do I accept all those referrals? You’d really think I would learn by now. But I get a referral, and the paper looks cool and is in my area, and I think in two weeks I will have the time (as if) and before you know it I have a freakin’ pile and it really looks like it’s going to eat up my whole weekend. Yet I can’t have it eat my weekend, because I really need the weekend…

There are four manuscripts in the pipeline, in first draft form. I wish we could submit them all before New Year, but I don’t know how I will manage to do that, considering that each needs considerable work.

I really hate over-scheduling and over-structuring my days, but perhaps that’s what I need, at least temporarily, in order to get back on a productive track.

But for now, I will start by getting some sleep.

 

The Reluctant Exerciser

When I was younger, I used to play sports. In recent years, I tried kickboxing and loved it, but had trouble fitting it into my regular schedule after I came back from sabbatical, and I finally stopped on account of shoulder pain and panniculitis (inflammation of the subcutaneous fatty tissue) in the front of my lower leg, which I believe had to to with the kicking trauma.

I have always hated running; I admire people who can do it, because it seems to be  phenomenal exercise, but I find it deathly boring, among other things. I would prefer to have some sort of activity where there is someone who pushes me to do stuff (because I know I will cheat if left to my own devices) and I like it if there are other people around, but such an activity would have to be one I can accommodate in my schedule and which hopefully doesn’t involve excruciating shoulder pain.

There are also constraints in that I don’t want to make my DH have to pick up the slack regarding handling the kids on account of my exercise too many times per week. With child drop off and pickup/evening activities of various children, my time at work is highly constrained, so I also can’t just take an hour to go to the gym in the middle of the day.

If people really want to exercise, they find the time. I completely agree with that. My problem is that I don’t really want to exercise, but I know that I should, because I am getting older, I sit too much, I don’t want to get diabetes/hypertension/heart attack/blood clots from too much sitting, and I would like to see my kids grow up.

So, how does one squeeze in the time to exercise, when one should, but is not burning with desire to do so and therefore is not willing to go to great lengths upending her and everyone else’s schedules? How do you fit in the minimum necessary exercise around the fringes of your schedule? And what is the true minimal exercise? People say 1 hr per day, which is too much of a time commitment for many people, and definitely for the likes of me who don’t actually want to do it.

Kudos to everyone who exercises regularly.
However, this is a post and a question for the rest of us, for reluctant and/or simply lazy would-be or barely exercisers (especially those who work and have young families):

Do you exercise? How often, how much? What would you consider an acceptable minimum? How do you squeeze it in?
How do you will yourself to do it? Were you once more or less lazy than you are now?

Can one stay fit and healthy long-term, while never falling in love with exercise? Is it possible? Or are heart attacks looming in our collective future?