Irrelevant Dislikes

Although college is still quite a ways (years) away for my daughter, the onslaught of Collegiate Propaganda has begun. We get mail every day with colorful brochures. There are certain colleges that send something to her just about every week. She gets email. She gets invited to college fairs. It is non-stop college college college, probably from now until the applications are due in what still seems like the distant future.

As the child of two professors, my daughter has come to realize that her parents have Opinions about colleges and universities, and these Opinions are only somewhat-to-not useful in many (most) cases. 

Some of the college-mail that comes to our home is entertaining. One college postcard had a photo of a friend of ours on front. Some are bizarre in their slogans and/or images. This is interesting, but there is one thing that my husband and I have struggled with and will likely continue to struggle with for the foreseeable future: we must not let our opinions of the Science Department and Particular Scientists influence our daughter, who does not want to be a Scientist.

I do not always win this struggle with myself. Not long ago, my daughter saw me throwing a college brochure into the recycle bin before she had a chance to look at the brochure. She asked me why I was throwing it out. I did not have a good answer other than that I don't like one of the Science Professors at that institution. Not long ago, I was the recipient of some inappropriate touching by that person (hugging, arm-touching, deliberate bumping up against me) at a conference; I think he is a creep. There are creeps everywhere and I don't seriously think I am saving my daughter from encountering creeps by tossing out a brochure from that creep's institution, but still...I did not want that brochure sitting on my kitchen counter.

I have actually disposed of a few other brochures for institutions associated with disliked individuals in my field. Some of these incidents are not very recent. Here is an excerpt from a post in 2006 about something that happened in my academic youth:
At one interview, I gave my interviewers an updated copy of my CV, noting that the version they had was out of date because I had submitted some papers and a paper formerly in review was now in press. One of the interviewers took my new CV, slammed it on the table right in front of me, said "If you care about things like that then you CLEARLY do NOT have what it takes to teach at a place like this", and walked out of the room. I did not get that job.
I threw out the colorful postcard that came in the mail from that place. The mean interviewer is still there.

An institution that was the source of two very-high-maintenance associates? Recycle bin.

I think one of the reasons I do this is because I don't really think it matters. My daughter gets e-mail from all of these institutions, she gets multiple items in the mail from many of them (and I don't get to them all first..), and she has a mind of her own. She seems moderately entertained by her parents' Science anecdotes (some of them are even about people we like), and not at all worried that we will ruin her life with our foibles or deprive her of her dream school because we don't like a certain Science Professor she will probably never encounter. She is enjoying (so far) exploring ideas about types of institutions, fields of study, geographical locations etc., and I hope she keeps enjoying this.

I just can't promise I won't recycle the thing that comes in the mail from the university of that Scientist who wrote that mean review of one of my papers three years ago.

Room With A Table

To state the obvious: not all classrooms are created equal. Students may have strong feelings about their classrooms (types and arrangement chairs, writing surfaces, boards, screens; sight lines, acoustics, lighting etc.), and professors do as well. And although there are certainly rooms that are better than others, what works well for one class might not work well for another so any one classroom might be good or not good depending on the class/professor.

Several times in my teaching career, I have requested and been initially assigned a "good" classroom (one that works well for the class I am going to teach), only to be reassigned at the last minute to a "not good" classroom. To the casual observer, the differences in these rooms may be quite subtle, so I may seem like an unreasonable complainer when I object, but a room with chairs in rows is very different from a room with chairs around a table. A room that is a 12-second walk from my office is very different from a room that is a 12-minute walk from my office. A room with projection equipment is very different from a room with no projection equipment, and a room with a giant touch-screen TV is very different from a room without.. and so on.

You may have guessed that a classroom reassignment happened to me recently, and your guess would be correct. Another annoying thing about this late reassignment is that I had spent some time over the summer specifically preparing teaching activities for the room to which I had been originally assigned. Much of this time was wasted because my actual classroom does not (and cannot) have the same features as the original room.

A classroom re/assignment is not a neutral thing; just because a certain room will fit the number of students enrolled in the class does not mean that the class will "fit" in that room.

But I don't want to be (too) cranky so early in the new academic year. I am disgruntled about this particular issue but overall quite excited about teaching one of my favorite courses.

Imported Talent

The topic of a recent email to me involved a male science professor who wanted to find a female science professor to talk to his female students "about being a woman in the sciences and work/life balance". The MSP did not write to me; the woman he asked for help wrote to me. She was not having much luck finding a local FSP who would participate in this, so this institution was willing to pay to bring someone in. This is all very well-meaning etc. etc. but I would like to make the unoriginal, non-radical suggestion that women should not be singled out to talk about work/life balance, either as givers or receivers of information on Family Issues, even by well-intentioned men.

I hasten to say that I am quite supportive of groups of women who voluntarily get together to discuss issues related to being a woman in science and I don't mind (too much) being asked to talk about these things at "pizza lunches" with female students, postdocs, and others (although I would like to see these become less common and necessary). I also hasten to say that I know very little about the particular situation described in the recent email; maybe the women students specifically asked the male professor to organize something involving FSPs and he asked around to see if some colleagues could help. OK, fine. It is good to meet possible role models, especially if few are available locally.

What would be a bit troubling (and may or may not be relevant to the specific situation that inspired this post) is if the MSP didn't think that men would be useful participants in a discussion of work/life balance, either as givers or receivers of information.

Whatever the case: what to do? Because these topics are so complex and vary so much from person to person, it might be useful to have a panel discussion involving FSPs and MSPs, and open to all students. Another option would be to find out what the questions and concerns of the students are, and then compile information from online resources (blogs etc.), or whatever else might be relevant. Certainly many blogs, including this one, welcome questions and comments, so there could even be some interactive discussion. Or maybe this blog is not the best candidate for this, as my opinions of work/life balance as a discussion topic are summarized here.

Anyway, maybe male and female students have some different questions and concerns, but I think both would likely benefit from having an integrated discussion with people who have had different work/life paths and who view these issues in different ways. 

Tell All

From a reader seeking your comments:

"I am currently on my 4th postdoc position and still have a 4 years left on my current fellowship. I've decided that I don't want to continue moving around, even for a permanent position. If a position opens up in my current town, I will apply, otherwise I plan to look for a job outside of academia in a few years time. Several people have contacted me with further fellowships or jobs positions abroad that they encourage me to apply to. Some of these people are current collaborators. My question is, how do I let them know that I don't want to apply to these jobs, without risking losing my collaborations over the next 4 years? I feel that if I let people know my true intentions, they will write me off as 'leaving academia', stop collaborating with me, inviting me to conferences etc... Even if I do eventually do something else, I still want the next 4 years to be productive scientifically, yet don't want to apply to places I have no intention of going to for that to happen. "

It is always tricky giving advice with only partial information about the context and people, but, as usual, let's not let that stop us. One possibility is to imagine this scenario in the context of our own collaborations and speculate about what we would want this person to do if we were working with them. Using that approach, this is what I think:

You should not apply for jobs you have absolutely no intention of taking no matter what. If you were merely leaning towards staying where you are but could possibly move for a great job, then it is worth applying anyway and seeing what happens. But if there is 0.00000% chance of your accepting another academic job if offered, I recommend not applying.

I realize that advice leads you to a situation of having to explain to your colleagues why you are not applying for academic jobs, but I also think you should be open with your colleagues about your decision. If I were your collaborator, I would keep working with you for the next few years but would know not to plan on doing so in the long-term (assuming your non-academic job wouldn't involve such collaborations). In fact, I am reminded of a situation years ago when a colleague of mine left academia but we kept working together for a while to wrap up a project. This was fine with me, and I appreciated having some notice because it affected my plans regarding proposals, students, postdocs and so on.

There are likely to be some conflicting views in the comments (I hope!), but perhaps seeing a range of opinions will nevertheless help this reader wrestle with the options and come to a good decision for this particular situation.

Not A First Class Guy

Owing to my frequent travels with a certain airline, I have a certain 'status' that has some nice features that make travel possibly bearable. Every once in a while I have to travel with another airline for which I am a nobody, and I know how soul-sucking it is to deal with the long lines and little seats all crammed together at the back of a plane in which every overhead bin has been (over)stuffed by those allowed to board first.

Anyway, my sympathy for the non-frequent flyers does not extend to my wanting to join them in misery, so I take full advantage of shorter lines and simpler security procedures whenever posssible. However, to get to the Premium Elite Special Place at check-in/security, I have to get past a gate-keeper.

I understand the purpose of the gate-keeper. I see them turn away people who are not allowed in the hallowed grounds of the Premium Elite Special Place and who need to be directed elsewhere. The gate-keeper helps keep the Premium Elite Special Place uncrowded and efficient. I hope they would let someone in who really needed a short line in order to make their flight, but I admit that overall I am glad to be able to get through check-in and/or security in a reasonable amount of time for most flights.

Over the years, I have become resigned to having to show my special-status card and having it scrutinized to make sure that I really am allowed to enter that special zone. I have become resigned to traveling with colleagues who do not have to show their card or who just flash their card quickly to gate agents who then stop me so that I can prove my worthiness to entire the Premium Elite Special Place. This is a very minor inconvenience, and I can usually get over the fleeting feeling of micro-humiliation by reminding myself of the alternative.

And yet this bothered me on my travel this week: As usual, I had to show my card, it was examined closely to make sure that it was not an expired card etc., and I was allowed in. The man behind me saw what I had to do and started to get out his card. The gate-keeper said to him, loudly and with apparent unconcern that I was a meter away and would hear: "I don't need to see YOUR card, sir. You LOOK like a first-class guy."

Memo to Airlines: Consider adding to your training of these gate agents some instructions about not blatantly insulting middle-aged women who do not look like "first-class guys". 

Little did I know that this minor little irritation with a certain airline would be dwarfed by what happened during the rest of the trip, but that is another story.

Prospective Grad Student Fail

Earlier this summer I met an undergraduate from another institution. The meeting was arranged by one of the student's mentors, who wrote to me saying that this student would benefit from meeting people whose research topics are similar to what the student has been doing for an undergraduate research project. This student is at a small school and, as a Prospective Graduate Student (PGS), they would also benefit from talking to a professor at a research university. So we set up a meeting.

From the very beginning, the conversation was confusing for me. PGS informed me early in the conversation that "no one else" (but PGS) is working on the particular research topic that we apparently had in common. I said, "Are you being sarcastic?". Oops, PGS was serious. So I said, "You mean other than me and a few dozen other people?" I explained that this was a very active topic of research, worldwide. I gave some examples.

Then PGS told me that some equipment at PGS's undergrad institution was very important for the research, but very few other places have these. I said, "We have two." Most research universities do.

PGS explained that the TopTwo schools according to the US News rankings were of most interest for graduate school, but this led to a question for me: Should PGS apply to "lesser" schools like mine? (meaning: not TopTwo). Um, no. Actually, I said I couldn't answer that for PGS in particular, not knowing anything about PGS's record, but I gave some examples of various subfields in which both, one, or neither of the TopTwo was a good place for graduate research.

My overwhelming impression was that PGS was immature, had spent too much time talking only to the undergrad advisor and not enough time immersed in the literature relavent to their research project, and was not at all prepared to have a professional conversation. The meeting was set up by a professor, not the student. I am not sure I will agree to that particular arrangement again. If a student wants to meet me, they can contact me.

Whether PGS will succeed or fail in graduate school, if accepted, is anyone's guess. Chances are that PGS will figure things out eventually.

This Seems Like a Good Time to Mention That I Hate Your Work

Have you ever been attacked in a rather impolite way while giving a professional talk?

OK, so "attacked" is a bit of hyperbole. Let's say instead "severely criticized" or perhaps even "insulted". A few notches down would be "asked a question that may have been intended to humiliate you."

I have! Recently! In this case, the question/comment was of the "Your work is totally worthless and a waste of your government's money" sort.

But first, let's go back in time. Not long before I gave my very first talk at a conference as a graduate student, a certain scientist asked me an informal question in conversation. I said I did not know the answer. An hour or so later, he asked me the exact same question at the end of my talk, in front of a few hundred people.

I thought: What a jerk. I did not know him very well, although I had read some of his papers, so I didn't know what his motivation was in asking me a question he knew I could not answer. It could be that he wanted to humiliate me, although that is not my preferred explanation. My favored hypothesis is that he thought it was such a great question, he didn't actually care whether I knew the answer or not, he just wanted to get points for asking it in public. I don't know for sure, but I must say that I was never able to summon much enthusiasm for conversing with him, much less working with him, after that episode.

Since then, it has been my general impression that some people who attempt to ask "take-down" kinds of questions or who make vague derogatory comments ("Your science is completely worthless") aren't actually concerned that Science is being harmed by a misguided or ignorant person. Instead, they are seeking attention and just enjoying the sound of their own brilliance. That is: Enough about you, person who just gave a talk! Now listen to what I have to say even though I don't actually have much to say that is interesting, relevant, or possibly even sane!

But I could be wrong about that. And I don't really want to spend any more time discussing why some people are jerks in this particular way. (And I don't mean to imply that everyone who asks an aggressive question or makes a negative comment is an unreasonable jerk. In some cases these questions and comments are well deserved and useful.)

Anyway, when a very outspoken rude person attempted a take-down kind of question/comment during a talk I gave at a conference recently, I totally did not care. I responded with basic explanations and opinions to his "concerns", and that was that. What surprised me was the number of people who came up to me afterwards to tell me that I shouldn't let it bother me, I shouldn't be upset, I shouldn't worry etc. In fact, I was not bothered, upset, or worried at all.

I appreciated the concern, but then I started to worry that I might have seemed upset when this is not at all what I felt. I don't think I said or did anything that could be interpreted as my being upset when I was up on the stage dealing with the obnoxious comments. I felt quite calm, perhaps a bit impatient, but mostly I thought the whole thing was absurd. It was not a big deal. It upset me to think that people might have thought I was upset when I wasn't. Does that make any sense?

Perhaps people were projecting? That is, they would have felt upset if the Big Guy had gone after them like that?

And maybe these aggressive people serve a useful purpose? Perhaps it actually helped me in the long run that I was "vaccinated" against aggressive questions at my very first professional talk -- after that, I expect it. There will be jerks. They are just part of the landscape. Water off a duck etc. etc.?

Have you ever been experienced what you considered an inappropriate question or comment -- either in content or tone -- during a professional talk? Were you upset?

Have you ever experienced a rude question or comment during a talk? free polls