Friday, August 24, 2007

Do a little prep work first.

Today I was leaving my building on my way to a meeting, and a student stopped me and said, "Excuse me, where are the stairs? I need to get downstairs to 100-something."

I said, ". . . there's no basement in this building, so you're already as far downstairs as you can go! What room are you looking for again?"

She: "101. Or 124. Or . . . I don't know."
Me: "Um. Is it for a class? Which one?"
She: "I don't remember."
Me: "Do you remember the subject?"
She: "No."
Me: "Good luck."

Honestly . . . knowing neither the room number nor the course number and not even what the general gist of the class you're looking for? Why?

Friday, August 03, 2007


Yesterday I had a little meeting with a student who is exploring potential members of his PhD committee and wanted to know my interest and if I'd be a good fit and all that. He seems interesting and motivated and whatever, and the conversation was cool. (He's 36, so he asked better questions than most students who are right out of undergrad.)

And then, towards the end, he said, "I just have one more question for you, and I hope you don't take it the wrong way. Do you have children? Are you planning to someday?"

And I was like, "Buh?" But then said, well, my husband and I are expecting a kid in October . . .um, but what difference does it make?

He kind of hinted that he really wanted people on his committee who were going to have the right level of focus, and then he mentioned something about having had knee surgery . . . I wasn't sure what any of that meant and decided not to probe any further; maybe he'd had a bad experience at some point, or something . . . I later mentioned that I've worked hard with my grad students this summer to make sure they were all on really solid ground before the fall begins, so that when I am out of the office towards the end of the semester it won't inhibit their progress in any way, and he said that he found that attitude "really encouraging."

I had no idea what he was really getting at. Nobody has ever asked me anything like that in one of those conversations about committee interest.

And for a while after he left, I felt vaguely unsettled by the conversation but couldn't figure out what exactly it was that was bothering me, aside from it's general inappropriateness. But eventually I put my finger on it.

He was either trying to ascertain (a) something about my value system and whether or not I have a life outside of work, or, (b) whether or not I would take my role seriously if I were on his committee, or if I'm just here for jollies and all my focus is someplace else.

I resent the implication that what he actually asked would address either one of those questions. I also suspect he would not ask the same question of a male professor.

What if I had a very rich and active social life? What if I did a lot of volunteer work? What if I had no kids or plans for kids but I was caring for an elderly parent, or a disabled spouse? Or I was planning to go on sabbatical next year? Or I was in the middle of a horrible divorce? Or any other thing, among the million things that can mess with a person's schedule or plans or can impact whether or not they work 70 hours a week. Surely at his age he would realize that every life comes with some surprises and disruptions, and you just deal with them as they come.

If he's concerned that I'm a woman and so probably my career is just something I am taking seriously temporarily, then, that would really make me angry. I have of course encountered this attitude more than once, but it still shocks me, especially when it's coming from men of more or less my same generation (which, interestingly, it was in every case).

Friday, July 27, 2007


Because I'll be going on maternity leave halfway through the fall semester, my department and I hatched this plan wherein I am filming all the course "lectures" through our distance ed office this summer, and then we're creating a distance learning version of the course for the fall. You know, with moderated discussion boards, and online quizzes and all that. And for the first half of the semester I'll be around for the students to come to office hours and such.

Don't ask me too many questions about how that's going to go, because I'm really not sure myself.

Anyway. Filming the classes is a very weird experience, because my normal teaching style is pretty interactive, but this series is just me, a tablet pc, a videocamera for my face, and an empty room. It's kind of unnerving, so I decided I needed a role model to keep in mind while doing this, so that I don't freeze up or fall apart.

I chose Alton Brown. He's nerdy, like me, but informative, and also entertaining to watch, so that it doesn't turn into a complete snooze-fest.

But today, I was going over some material in the middle of the lecture, and as I drew something on the pc I made a little noise, following along with the pen.

And then it occured to me, that really the class is way more like THIS than like Alton Brown (except, the homework is slightly more complex):

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Signs you spend too much time working.

  1. You repeatedly try to open your front door at home with your office key.
  2. You try to open your office door with your USB stick.


Monday, July 02, 2007

Among my fears.

What if I send out a manuscript, and the reviewers HATE it and talk about how stupid I am behind my back? Generally, reviewers in my field are really helpful, I think, and so this is probably a mostly irrational worry. All of the reviews I've ever gotten back on my own work have been really constructive, even if they're critical, and even if the first response is "reject." But still, are they saying things I don't see?

I'm an underling editor for one of the main journals in my discipline, so these days I get to see a lot more of the review process. Today I recieved a review from one person, who wrote some constructive (albeit terse) comments in the part of the review form the authors get to see, and then also added a comment in the part that only the editors get to see. It said,

This manuscript demonstrates profound ineptitude on the part of the authors.


But that answers the question. Yes, they very well may think I'm an idiot without explicitly saying so to me. (I should add that none of my papers thus far have ever not gotten published, even if it took a few revisions or a few different journals. So objectively I should believe I am not viewed as a complete moron.)

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Goodbye, old friend.

My beloved TI-85 calculator, which I got as a high school graduation present from my parents some 14 years ago, needs to be put down. The keypad no longer works - or rather, it's fritzy, sometimes certain buttons work, and sometimes certain buttons don't.

So for the couple of weeks, I've had to be pretty creative with even simple math. Like, I needed to multipy something by eight. But that day my multiply and 8 buttons were both dead. So I had to divide by 2^(-3) instead. That kind of thing.

At first I thought, I should get it fixed! That seems like a straightforward connection problem! Maybe I could even fix it myself if I could get in there with a little soldering iron or who knows what!

But then I thought, let's be practical. I have $X left to expend by the end of this week from one of my pretty flexible accounts, and that would easily cover the costs of a shiny new TI-89 TITANIUM. That seemed more sensible. So that is what I did.

But, I love my old calculator. We've been through so much together - good times (Honors Calc II my freshman year in college) and bad times (Numerical Methods for Partial Differential Equations during grad school), and everything in between. It saw me through 4 years of college, 6 years of grad school, and 4 years as an asst prof, and I'm having a hard time letting go.

My wedding dress is probably still sitting in a folded up pile at the back of my little sister's closet in her old room at my parents' house. But a calculator is getting me all misty.

When I opened the TITANIUM package last night to start playing with the new calculator (which immediately repulsed me with its fancy features I'll never use and its oh-so-smart way of telling me sin(pi/4) is the square root of two over two - my old calculator would just tell me it was 0.707... and then leave it to me to figure out what that was, if it was important to me) I felt like a cheating spouse.

I'm sorry, TI-85, I really am. You're just not working for me any more, and I need to move on.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

System, failure.

So, you know how in academia, especially in the major research universities, there are all these things you're supposed to do if you want to be successful? And how you're supposed to do a lot of them? Almost a ridiculous superhuman amount?

This internal conflict arises in me.

Many of those things, those hallmarks of success, are not fundamentally all that important to me - at least not in the volumes I am supposed to be doing them. For example -

Let's say that to support a nice PhD student for a year (stipend, tuition, conference travel, supplies, publication costs, etc.) I need 30,000 clams. There are a variety of sources for this kind of clammage, and I don't particularly care which source I ultimately get it from. Because really what matters to me is that we get to do the research and share the results, and I get to participate in the development of the next set of researchers.

But, the system will tell me that some clams are really worth more than others, because they are more competitive or higher profile or pay more overhead. And the system is not at all impressed by the low value clams.

And so forth.

And, you know, I could work maybe 50-75% more than I do, and maybe rack up some more of those awesome things. But I would do so at the expense of my private life, which is more important to me, in the end, than my work life - even though I definitely value my work life.

So, this conflict. Do I

  • do all the things that are important to the system, as if they are important to me too, and really try to conform myself to the system's definition of success?


  • maintain my own definition of success, and do all the things that are important to me as a person and a researcher and an educator, and in the right balance for me, and hope that enough people in my position do the same, so that in time they system becomes more like us?

I lean towards the latter - at least, I live that way, so I suppose it probably is what I really believe. I think if I did the former, I might grow to hate my job, and leave. Or, imagine how irate I would be if I did the former and it still lead to, you know, unsuccess. Either outcome seems like it would mean I'd wasted a LOT of time and energy and joy.

Or, maybe the people that are successful are the ones that just naturally have EXACTLY the same definition of success as the system, and so they don't ever experience this conflict. Maybe I'm naive; I find this pretty unlikely.

Although, I suppose a lot of faculty types are internally motivated by external recognition of their awesomeness - so, maybe it's really that successful people are that way because the thing that is fundamentally important to them is just the success, however that happens to be measured or judged in their chosen field. I'm sure there are some people that are this way.

(And then I guess some people are just supergenius and savvy and lucky. But, I'm not those things, just a normal kid! So that can't be my strategy anyway!)

Friday, June 08, 2007

Trying to be somebody useful.

That's what I've been up to lately.

Aspect 1: Be a mentor to my junior colleagues

Now that I have a full contingent of graduate students (well, as many as I feel I could reasonably handle at this stage of my career) I have realized I need to develop some kind of core of mentorship with my graduate students. Up until now I have pretty much just been getting by - answering questions as they come up, being more or less completely reactive, and not really helping them develop in their career.

I have only the vaguest ideas of how to do this, but making up my mind in a concrete way that I have this goal has led to some positive forward motion. Yay for that!

Aspect 2: Be a source of preparation for my undergraduates.

Instead of just teaching them. These people are, in some sense, the product of a goodly portion of my work - they are what I produce. And so I really want them to be as awesome as they want to be.

Aspect 3: Be a contributing member of my scientific field.

Now that I feel like I am rolling steadily towards tenure, I don't feel like I need to be quite as me-oriented. Which is good, because "me" doesn't end up being a very strong motivator for me. Now that I'm not so frazzled, I think I am regaining my passion for the social value of the work that I do, which makes the work a lot more enjoyable and satisfying.

Aspect 4: Be a contributing member of my family.

This one will be reaching a critical point later this fall, since my husband and I are expecting our first kid. I am, honestly, trying not to think about it too much, because I know I'll just worry about it (balance, tenure, blahblahblah), and that's really not productive.

You know, in the back of my mind one of the things I'm not looking forward to is that my homelife will no longer be mostly about me. Is it weird that in my professional life, I'm relieved that it's no longer mostly about me, but am dreading this at home?

Hm. Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised to find some satisfaction in giving up my generally selfish ways?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Dr. Micromanagement strikes again

You may remember him from a previous post.

We're doing another round of proposals, and on one of them, a revision came back from Dr. M with a certain catch phrase (not really related to the work we're doing) inserted in the title. That was news to me and to my colleague Kenneth, the original author of this proposal.

So, I sent an email to Dr. M and Kenneth asking about this new addition and noting how I didn't see anything about said catch phrase mentioned in the proposal, so it seemed kind of out of place to me.

Dr. M responded, "I was a little unclear on this connection myself. See what you and Kenneth can come up with to make the proposal more balanced in this regard."


The thing is, as I said in the previous post, it's not a big deal. And actually, I'm trying to learn a few appropriate lessons from Dr. M about how to sell things and get the right buzz for projects (but am trying to not absorb his strategy of treating colleagues like students).

But, you know, at the same time . . . in light of this week's events at VT, I am not in the mood for his hijinks right now.

Turns out, neither is Kenneth. As I composed my diplomatic email reverting the change while he sat in my office after our discussion about it, he said,

"Also say, PS. Kenneth says 'buzz off'".

(I did not.)

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Difference of opinion.

One of my former students came to me to complain about an exam he'd had in another class, that has some overlapping material with a class the student had taken from me.

He read me one of the exam questions, and outlined the solution that the other professor had been looking for. In my opinion, the question and the solution were such an oversimplification of the real problem that the "solution" was actually incorrect. The student, having discussed this topic in greater detail in my class, knew there was a problem with it also, but wasn't sure if maybe he was missing some big idea.

I encouraged him to go talk to the other professor, and see what the prof was thinking, and explain what he (the student) was thinking, etc. Just to see where the disconnect was. So, he did. The professor agreed that his solution was "not technically correct", but said, "I was just looking for a quick answer, and for back-of-the-envelope purposes, my way is fine."

Okay, maybe. (Having seen the actual question, I feel like his approach was still no good, even for rough estimates, because it was all based on some very sketchy relationships). But, it rankles me that the students were asked to come up with a ridiculous and inappropriate answer, and then penalized for trying to go about it in a better way.

But, that's the weird thing about grading. There's no recourse when the professor is wrong, or wrong-ish, and doesn't care.

This has come up once before; a student came to me in deep confusion over a subject in another class, and since I'm very familiar with that subject matter he wanted me to try to explain it to him. When I looked at the problem, I saw that the prof was using the wrong approach for that type of situation - and then I wondered what my responsibility was towards the student. I decided to explain how *I* would do it, and gave him some references, but pointed out that I wasn't teaching the class, and so it would be worth his while to know the other guy's approach (but, it bothered me a lot, because out in the real world, that approach wouldn't be right). I even, very gently, asked that prof, if he didn't mind, to explain to me why he was using that approach, and his explanation didn't make sense to me either. But I left it there because I wasn't sure if it was any of my business.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Management of senior colleagues

I'm working on a project with a group of faculty from across a few disciplines. While I like them all as people, one of them is a real challenge for me. He's the PI for the project that originated the group, and is an extreme micromanager. He's in a discipline fairly distant from mine, and so while understands the premise of my work and how it connects with the project, he understands none of the technical details - and yet, he questions my every move on said details. I don't take this personally, because he does it to everyone else in the group as well - so I know this isn't an issue of rank or gender, it's just his style.

We're working on another proposal related to this project, but with the focus of this one squarely in my area of expertise.

Dr. Micromanagement is again making me crazy by:
1. Demanding that he be listed as the responsible party for all objectives in the proposal, despite the fact that most of them are way, way outside his area of expertise, and despite the fact that I am the PI on this proposal,
2. Not submitting any verbiage for the proposal for the pieces he actually IS responsible.

My husband, listening to me vent, wonders why I just don't kick the guy off this proposal, and find people who are easier to work with. It's not really in my best interest to do so, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I am just an assistant professor and he's a full professor well respected and rewarded for his research.

And also, I am developing a thick and diplomatic skin about issues like this, so, I can deal. (But still!)

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Maybe we're just TOO nice.

So, I had this student last semester. This semester he enrolled in another class of mine, which I co-teach with another faculty member (one of the ones from this episode), and it's pretty much the same story: nice kid, NOT up to graduate level work.

My colleague, having felt burned by our struggle last semester with the grad student thesis issue, wants to do something or say something to somebody - and I can't say I totally disagree. On the one hand, graduate school is this student's responsibility. On the other hand, we accepted him, and we're paying him to be here.

But, what would we say, and to whom? Perhaps the major professor? But in many ways, it's also a college and departmental issue. I'm starting to think that problems like these - students kind of languishing in a program that's maybe not a great fit for their skills or aptitudes - are more widespread than just one or two students here and there. A friend of mine in another department relayed to me that he'd recently been on a master's committee for a student in my department that he felt was clearly not up to the task, and whose thesis he thought was a total joke (but as the most junior member on the committee, and as somebody outside the department, he felt hamstrung, and ultimately went along with the rest of the committee, and just decided never to serve on any committees in my department again).

Other faculty members in my department, when I was consulting with more senior folks than I during my struggle with that grad student of mine last year, have pretty much told me the same thing, that there are some problems with quality control, but there's not really any mechanism to catch that and act on it early. (I think that was something at the root of my problem with that grad student - if there had been a way to reroute her to a more appropriate program, perhaps a non-thesis option, I might have done it. But, having already invested a year of money in her that would go wasted if she left or went non-thesis, I decided to take my chances that we could squeeze her into a more researchy mold, which was only marginally successful).

Maybe it's no different when this is not the case, but the fact that all these students are funded on grant money, where you are on the hook for delivering some results, creates a weird dynamic when things go wrong, because as a faculty member you absolutely NEED your grad students to be successful, and you can't really afford to have ones that aren't. So maybe we sometimes push or coddle students that we really shouldn't be pushing.

My department is nationally ranked, in the low single digits. So we ought to be attracting and recruiting high-quality students (of course, there's another issue of it being difficult to know the quality of a potential graduate student just based on their undergraduate academic performance, and it's even more of a struggle when the applicant is from a foreign university - which most of them are). And we ought to be fair to the students that do come here, and not let them slip by when there's palpable trouble.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007


So, I am working on this collaboration with some industry folks, and they recently decided to toss some dollars at one of our projects, enough for me to bring on an MS student to work on it.

I have had an undergrad working on this project for the last 8 months or so, and would love to have him continue, but he's not leaning towards graduate school. Also, though energetic, he is not particularly detail oriented.

So I have been considering this, how shall I recruit, etc., and one of my former students comes by to ask if he could put me down as a reference on his resume, and also he's having some career questions, and should he be considering graduate school, and that sort of thing.

If I were a cartoon character, my eyes would have turned to dollar signs or hearts at that moment. I really like this student - he's a good guy, very scholarly, diligent, thoughtful, critical, etc. OF COURSE HE SHOULD CONSIDER GRADUATE SCHOOL.

And, he should - but, I find myself a little bit blinded by my desire to have him as MY graduate student.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Out of the toolshed.

Remember when I mentioned about how weird it is to run into complete tools around campus? Several weeks ago, I was at some university event, and ran into the woman that had set up that particular meeting. She said, "Oh, and by the way, I want to apologize for that meeting you attended. Somebody there was a real problem. We had to have [somebody in a position of authority] have a talk with that person, and let them know that sort of behavior was not appropriate in that kind of meeting."

Huh. Well, then it wasn't just me, with my cloistered little rose-hued view on academia. That person really WAS a tool.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Look here.

I am on my department's faculty bowling league. I do this because I enjoy the other bowlers, and I like the opportunity to get out of the house/office and do something different every now and then. (I do not do it because I enjoy bowling or am any good at it - actually, I am the worst bowler in the league, a fact I know because everybody's scores are posted on the internet for the hard-core bowlers - or people who wonder, "Am I indeed the worst bowler in the league?" - to scrutinize.)

So, the other day, a member of another team struck up a conversation with me, and then asked what team I was on, and I said, "_____ [name of my department]". He said, "That's funny! You don't look like a ____ist!"

My internal response: "Wake up, dude."
My external response: "Ha, right, well, they clearly asked me to be on the team because of my excellent bowling skills, haha."

Several days later, my husband and I went to a concert of a group we'd seen before. I thought about that time; we'd bought a CD and gotten it autographed. When I approached one of the group members, he signed my CD and said, "Are you a violinist? You look like a violinist." (In case you were wondering: I am not a violinist.)

Personally, I think I look like exactly what I am. Nothing surprising or anything.

Have you ever seen that program where the contestant has to guess which person in this group in front of them is the EMT, CPA, kidney donor, or whatever? I think this show is not interesting. Aside from the one or two "gimme" matches, like the guy in the giant buffalo hide, horns and all, when one of the list members is "Medicine Man," there's no reason to suspect that you'd be able to identify a kidney donor or a knitting expert just by looking at them.

Friday, January 05, 2007

But sometimes you can't even get students to come to class when they are PAYING for it.

I think this is interesting. I also do not have enough confidence in my teaching to say that I think this would encourage anybody to attend my university if we did the same thing. I suspect the reaction would be more like, "Zzzzzzzzzzz."

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

I wish we had 4 weeks between semesters.

But we have 3. It's not enough. The week immediately after finals, you're kind of doing cleanup from the carnage of the weeks before, including attending all the meetings scheduled for after finals because everybody was too busy prior to that. Then if you're me, you travel to family for 5 or 6 days over Christmas. Then you really only have one week before the circus rolls into town again.