Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Fake Review Contest Entries #9-12

Here are a few more "fake reviews" for the Fake Review Writing Contest:

9. ER

Dear Editor,

In the future please waste your own time.

10. YN (modified only slightly from a real review)

I'm suspicious of claims to categorize behavior in the vague terms of these authors, or as has been done in the past, using the very popular statistical framework X, which claims that the only way to rationality is to have a prior distribution on possible hypotheses for every problem. The experiments seem to be toys.

11. SW

I couldn’t help but noticed that my work is not cited in this paper on (a topic that has nothing to do with my work). If my work is not going to be cited, why would I spend time reviewing this work? If the authors add citations to my papers, if only the recent ones but perhaps also one of my classic papers and ideally my 2010 paper because I just need a few more cites on that one to raise my h-index by a point, I will be happy to read past the introduction and reference list.

12. NR

If the authors had high-quality data, interesting ideas, and an understandable discussion and conclusions, I would write a positive review. In the absence of those items, I regret that I must hate this paper.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Fake Review Contest Entries #5-8

Here are a few more 'fake' reviews (even though some are apparently word-for-word or only slightly modified from real reviews):

5. CF

Paper title: Graph analysis of System ABC shows differences in A-B connections during Condition X vs. Y

This paper uses a novel method to study ABC system dynamics. However, I don't know anything about graph analysis so I'm going to interpret the paper through the lens of a different analysis method I do know something about. Thus the only constructive feedback I can give is that this paper is a poorly written explanation of a structural equation model of XYZ - the conclusions drawn make little sense given the data, i.e. they frequently refer to "graphs" but all I see are these pictures of circles and arrows.

6. SS (modified slightly from a real review)

Since the author is a woman, I had lowered my expectations accordingly, but the author did not even meet those. Even though I have never done experiments in my life and have never used any of these techniques, the experimental results presented were completely misinterpreted in my distinguished opinion. The largest error was the omission of any background information; the authors did not cite enough of my papers or work in the background, specifically my articles in “Science” and “Nature”.

7. MC (verbatim real review)

Why is this result not loudly proclaimed as a triumph of predictive modeling? I can think of several reasons, such as (a) the authors are saving this for another paper, or (b) some one else has this result in press already and the authors don't want to deal with the politics, or (c) the one that worries me, the only explanations known are ones that cast serious doubt on the other analysis in the paper, so something is wrong somewhere.

8. EWH

There was no point in my reading the entire paper because in the introduction on page 2 the authors assert with no supporting evidence that the world is round. That the world is round is simply stated. What is the evidence for this? Without a detailed and convincing explanation, with compelling evidence, the rest of the paper is worthless.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Fake Review Contest Entries #1-4

The first entries in the reviewing writing-fest are fascinating because they are all apparently based on real reviews. In some cases, I think only a few identifying details have been changed. Perhaps there is no need to have a creative writing exercise to craft a fake review introduction; the real ones are strange enough to provide plenty of fodder.

There will likely be a vote on the entries at some point, so I am numbering the entries and adding an author pseudonym for each (in most cases at the request of the author):

1. kamikaze

Taking into account that this paper forms the basis of Ms HopefulAuthor's PhD thesis, I would have loved to love this paper. But I don't. I hate it so much I don't even want to read it properly. Therefore, I will reject it without any other argument than the fact that if this paper had been better, I would have read it and loved it. Ms HopefulAuthor had better hope I'm not on her committee.

2. mixedmetaphor

This paper is like a car-bomb headed for a building or a wall or something; it is difficult to be sure what or where it is going. Will it explode or will it be a dud? Neither has a good outcome, nor does this paper. It is filled with dangerous ideas crammed into a package with a mundane exterior.

3. JT

I have completed my review of the manuscript by XYZ et al.  This manuscript must be rejected on grounds of plagiarism - significant sections of the text were copied verbatim from a previously-published manuscript [ABC et al.].  I attached a PDF of ABC et al.'s paper and the XYZ et al. manuscript marked to indicate the plagiarized text (you will note that all but the first two paragraphs were copied).  I am very disappointed that the authors chose to represent another group's work as their own.

4. GR

Proposal Title:  Linear and Nonlinear Methods to solve XXX

Reviewer 3 (it's always reviewer 3):

"Why is the approach limited to linear methods, and the PI does not propose nonlinear methods?"

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Write This 2013

It has taken me a while to have 6.2 minutes of spare time to put together a post about an end-of-year FSP academic writing contest, but here it is, finally. You probably don't have much time either, so this year's contest has a brevity requirement.

To summarize the last five (5) contests:

I was just thinking about how I finally have some time to work on my own writing, but then I realized I have letters of reference and nomination to write and I have promised to comment on the proposals and manuscripts of some colleagues and I have some manuscript reviews to do. The latter is the inspiration for this year's writing contest: REVIEWS. Specifically, I refer to reviews of manuscripts and proposals.

Reviews can be quite lengthy. In fact, some are longer than the original manuscript (I have only done that a few times). No matter how long and detailed the review, however, some reviewers signal their overall opinion in a few introductory sentences that address the general issues raised in the rest of the review. Is this review going to be mostly positive, negative, or "mixed"?

It is those first few sentences that form the challenge of this year's writing contest.

In 2-4(ish) sentences, write the introduction of a review. Your review can be of any flavor that you wish -- you can write a few sentences of pure scathing venom, you can write a beautiful prose-poem of praise, or you can be passive-aggressive and compliment (faintly) whilst undermining the entire premise of the paper.

I prefer that these reviews be entirely fake, but you can of course use real reviews (that you have written or received) as inspiration, ideally suitably disguised so that no real individual is targeted for insult or humiliation. The point of this exercise is to have fun and entertain with creative writing of the academic sort.

Send your entries to femalescienceprofessor@gmail.com and I will post results intermittently whilst the FSP Family is traveling around an interesting part of the world for the next 2 weeks or so.

Friday, December 13, 2013

My Year of Meets

[Note: the title is a subtle reference to the book "My Year of Meats" by Ruth Ozeki, but not for any particular reason, though I did like the book.]

Somehow I ended up going to a lot of meetings again this year. What is "a lot"? This year, for me, "a lot" = 6. There might be some years in which 6 is a good number and other years in which 6 is excessive, so the concept of "a lot" is flexible.

I do not regret going to any of the 6 -- each one was interesting in its own way, and very useful for discussions with colleagues and prospective colleagues/postdocs/students. Some of the 6 meetings were large, some were small, one was less than 500 miles from my home, the others were more than 500 miles from my home.

As I was musing about my Year of Meet(ing)s, I decided to try to think of the Most Strange meeting-related experience that I had in 2013. It will not surprise any regular reader of this blog when I say that my Most Strange meeting-related experiences (MRE) involved gender-directed weirdness.

There were several contenders for Most Strange MRE.

There was the incident when a colleague I have seldom met in person (although we have corresponded extensively by e-mail for years and written several papers together) came up to me and gave me a startlingly emphatic and prolonged hug in the presence of his wife (who walked away). ick.

There was the potential postdoc who had corresponded with me and who had supposedly done extensive investigating of a large project I am directing and that he wanted to join but who somehow thought that one of my male colleagues must be the lead investigator despite massive documentary evidence to the contrary.

And there were numerous small incidents in which men went out of their way to explain to me that they supported women scientists -- some of them had even worked with women and the experience had been surprisingly good. etc.

But the "winner" was when a scientist with whom I have only a passing acquaintance came up to me after a session that I co-organized and congratulated me on putting together such a "diverse" session. I don't mean to be thick, but my first thought was that he was referring to the subjects covered in the talks.

He said, "You must have worked really hard to have such a diverse session."

I said, "No, the session easily fell into place, given the general theme. We were all very pleased that there was such a diversity of approaches." [note: we = my male co-organizers and I]

He said, "I meant diversity of the speakers."

I said, "Oh, right, yes, well, we did deliberately invite two early-career speakers and two more established speakers, but it was mostly good luck that the session ended up with such broad representation from across Europe, Asia, and North America."

He said, "No, I mean that there were so many women in your session. I congratulate you on finding so many women." (FSP note: "so many" in this case: ~ 35% of total speakers, 50% of invited speakers)

I said, "That was not deliberate." I paused and thought about it for a moment, then said, "but maybe this was a good example of how a session can easily be naturally diverse."

He said, "It made me think that we are spending too much time focusing on the problem of women in science."

I said, "That does not follow."

That was depressing. It seems that at least one person assumed that those women speakers were selected because they are women, not because they are doing interesting work (even the one who is a hot-shot professor at a Top-Two institution?).

What has been your Most Strange MRE of 2013? Please share.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

If You Just

It seems like it has been a long time since I have done a poll in this blog. Perhaps that is because I am tired of doing surveys, including surveys on surveys, not to mention surveys for which I seem to be held personally responsible for making sure others do them even though I don't even want to do the survey myself? Perhaps, but today seems like a good day for a blog-poll anyway. The topic is the post from last week.

How would you describe your reaction (just based on what you know from my description of the incident in that post)? I have enabled the 'multiple response' feature so you can select more than one. I don't doubt that my list below is incomplete. If you are so inclined, please leave a comment if your response is not represented.

My response was..
pollcode.com free polls 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

I'll Go First

Earlier this year, I participated in a workshop about diversity in hiring and retention, with all the usual discussion of implicit bias and so on and so forth. It was very well done and I appreciated the reminders and advice.

At one point in the workshop, we were divided into small groups to discuss relevant topics. My group consisted of 4 women and 1 man (all white). Although I was the only scientist in the group, it turned out that 3 of the 4 women were from fields in which women are underrepresented.

For our small-group discussions, we were told to share experiences in which we had felt that gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or other characteristic had affected how people had treated us in a professional situation. When one of the women in my group started to speak, the man interrupted her and said "I'll go first."

I laughed and got a strange look from him. I thought he was being funny and had jumped in like that to be deliberately stereotypically aggressive. He was not joking. He really wanted to go first. He had seriously interrupted the woman who started to speak because he had something really important to say (first).

His example involved living in another country years ago and having someone say something in a meeting about Americans not understanding some aspect of higher education administration in that other country. This hurt him. He felt stereotyped, and he felt that the comment was directed at him even if it was made in an apparently general way.

The stories the women told were mostly about being ignored, silenced, disrespected, overlooked, and patronized in very personal ways that in some cases affected their careers. The man nodded and said he understood, he had felt that same way when he was insulted that time years ago.

I admit that I thought his example was stupid and I thought that I would not like to be in his department. Not to be competitive or anything, but he came up with one ancient example in which his administrative prowess had been obliquely called into question. The women each had multiple recent experiences in which they had been the specific, personal target of some very unpleasant behavior by colleagues or administrators.

But then I wondered: perhaps, for the purposes of being alert to bias, the important thing is that this man believes that he had the experience of being stereotyped and feels empathy as a result? I am not advocating being disrespected as a personal growth experience for all, but I wondered if I was being too hard on him in dismissing his example as absurd.

Then I remembered that he had interrupted and insisted on going first, and I gave up on my wonderings. Perhaps my failure to respect his example shows the limitations of my empathy. And perhaps I have a lot more work to do to overcome my own biases (despite attending numerous workshops).

I left the workshop thinking: how can any of us possibly do the right thing (in the hiring process) if we are all riddled with biases, despite good intentions? Is our best hope to have large and diverse hiring committees comprised of people whose biases, implicit and overt, will mostly cancel each other out?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Tour de Forced

Lately I have been looking at those little roving clusters in campus tours with a new perspective. Over the years, I have been amused and in some cases semi-horrified by what I have overheard as campus tours passed nearby. I have been amused by the endless trove of strange trivia that tour guides impart, and semi-horrified when some of that trivia is about my department/building and is quite incorrect (not that it matters). Lately I have been looking at these groups to observe the proportion of students to parents and to see if any students look like they are on the tour without their parents. It's hard to tell of course, but I think most students go on these tours with one or both parents.

Although not something I have to face too imminently, college is looming on the horizon for my daughter, and that will mean campus tours and all the rest. My parents did not accompany me on any campus tours, but these days it seems that many parents do. I can see how the shared experience would give you something to discuss later, and that would be interesting.

Even so, I would rather walk around a campus with my daughter ± husband (not on a tour) and have her do the guided tour thing alone if she wants to go on a tour. I am not sure I could handle all that backward walking, our-rec-center-is-so-cool, the history-building-is-haunted trivia stuff.

I am surely being unfair to campus tour guides by even suggesting that all they do is spout meaningless factoids. I know that the work they do can be extremely important. I have met several people recently whose choice of college was positively or negatively affected by the campus tour guide. In fact, I recently asked a high school senior why he decided not to apply to a particular university, and he said it was because he didn't like the campus tour guide.

I still remember the tour guide at the one college to which I applied (early decision). I was very impressed by her. Did she change my life? Perhaps I would have applied and gone elsewhere for college if she had been an obnoxious bore? I don't know, but I also think my experience on the tour would have been different if my parents had been with me. I enjoyed being on my own, free to have my own impressions and then talk about them with my parents later.

I have discussed this with my daughter, and she is so-far ambivalent about being accompanied by one or more parents. She can see how the shared-experience thing might be nice, but she is also happy to have her own adventures. I told her that if she ever wants me to accompany her, I will, and I will even try to behave.

Did you go on campus tours with your parents (or other adults) and/or offspring (depending on your stage of life..)? Are you glad you did? If so, what was good about it? And if you did not go on campus tours with your parents (or other adults) and/or offspring, why not?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Price Check : You

A former PhD student of one of my colleagues recently added up the cost to their advisor/institution of their graduate education: salary, tuition, benefits for n years. It was a large number. Add to that the cost of the research (this can be considerable). Then evaluate the result, however you want to attempt to measure that in tangible or intangible ways (knowledge advanced, papers published, career opportunities for the former student).

[Note: I am talking about the typical case of a STEM graduate student who receives full support during their graduate studies -- salary, tuition, benefits. In this post I am ignoring the issue of low pay for grad students, not because I don't care about the issue but because I want to discuss other financial aspects of the grad school experience.]

In this particular case, the former student (who is not an academic and who has a successful career that involves thinking about money) was just musing about 'worth'. Was it 'worth' it to the advisor, department, institution to spend all that money on this PhD? In this particular case, the advisor's answer is yes (I happen to know), and I will take the liberty to speak on behalf of the institution and say yes as well. This is a good result.

I was impressed that the former student was interested in putting a price tag on their graduate education for the items that have specific costs. If you are in a STEM field or another field in which you are paid to be a graduate student (including as a teaching assistant), do you know how much your graduate education cost(s)? For example, if you are a graduate research assistant paid from a grant, do you know what the actual amount to the grant is (not just your salary)? You may not know, as advisors don't routinely share this information; I don't, but not because it is a secret, it just doesn't occur to me to mention it. If you are teaching assistant, your department may be paying your tuition and benefits in addition to your salary, which may or may not be the same amount as for a research assistant depending on institution-specific policies.

And how much does your research cost? You probably know (or knew) some of the costs, for example if you turned in receipts for conference travel. But do you also know the costs (rate) for any analytical, computational, or other methods that have user fees? This is not a judgmental question with a right and wrong answer; I'm just curious.

Whether those costs turn out to be 'worth' it to anyone (including you) is another question -- one that is too big a question for my post-grading brain to handle right now, though it is interesting to contemplate how each of us measures long-term worth in this particular context.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Heads or Chairs?

Whenever administrators at the department level (or moral equivalent) gather to discuss their experiences, a very common topic is whether one is a head or a chair. What is the difference and who cares?

First let me note here that I am not entirely one or the other (but will not explain that statement further), so the distinction is not one that I feel strongly about. Nevertheless, I have found myself having the heads-or-chairs conversation (or listening to discussion of the topic) a surprising number of times in the past year or so.

During one recent discussion among a group of chair-heads, it turned out that some people's definition (in this case: powerful heads vs. less-powerful chairs) did not hold up in the face of data. In fact, in a group composed of heads and chairs, there seemed to be no difference in terms of the types of activities and amount of "power" (for lack of a better word) each administrative species had. Perhaps there is a distinction within a single institution that has both heads and chairs, but any such distinctions across institutions seem to have little or no meaning. I am not even sure there are distinctions within single institutions. I know of one case in which the distinction is related to historical preference rather than to any real difference in responsibilities.

To answer the question about the difference between a head and a chair: There seems to be a belief among some that heads have more power (such as to make decisions with less consultation of faculty, committees, deans) or length of term (5±1 years versus 3 years) but in fact there may or may not be a difference at some (many?) institutions.

Who cares? Do you care? My unscientific research into this critical issues seems to indicate that heads care more than chairs. I have heard some people (n = 6) specifically note that they are a head, not a chair, but I have not heard a chair make such an emphatic distinction. Maybe administrators at higher levels care. Maybe I have met the only 6 people in the world who care. I can tell you for sure that my mother does not care.

Which one do you think sounds better? I think they both sound absurd (if you really think about it), but head is simpler because it is gender-neutral. Chair can of course be short for chairperson, but chairman is still a very common word. The easiest way to get me to claim to be a "head" is to ask me whether I prefer chairwoman, chairman, or chairperson. Ugh. None of the above.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Medieval Mind

Not long ago, I sat next to Distinguished BioMedSciProf at a luncheon meeting. We introduced ourselves (name, department, institution) and said a few slightly-more-detailed things about our areas of research expertise. I therefore knew what part of the human body/system he studied and he knew what aspect of the physical sciences I studied. We talked for quite a while, but I will mention three particular things that affected my conversational experience:

1. After explaining some basic aspects of my research, he asked, "Why hasn't all that been figured out already?" Several times in our conversation, he said things like, "Don't we already know all the important things about that?"

What does one even say to something like that? We non-bio scientists are just a bit slow? So how's it going CURING CANCER? What? You haven't done that yet?

2. Talking to him was like lopsided jousting, or like taking my oral prelims again. He fired questions at me and expected a certain answer. If he was not convinced by my response (despite having no expertise with which to judge my answers), he expressed his dissatisfaction ("That is hard to believe" etc.) and fired more questions. It was conversational torture (alert: hyperbole).

I was overall fine with this although I did not enjoy it as a conversational style. Is this one of those stereotypical male/female things in which men enjoy conversation-as-combat and women feel attacked? I didn't exactly feel attacked -- that's too strong a word -- although it was a bit exhausting. He mostly asked me questions about what he perceived I work on rather than what I really work on, but we made little progress in getting to a discussion of what I really work on. This could be because I was not a good explainer or because he was not interested in what I really work on. Either way, I think it is safe to say that he was not a good listener.

3. He said he thought he had met me before. I said I did not think we had ever met. It did not take much more exploration of this conversational thread to realize that he was confusing me with another female science professor in the physical sciences, at another university.

"No man can tell two of them apart, you see, and one name's as good as another.." The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

Well, the quotation wasn't meant to apply to women, but from my perspective, I have very little in common with the other FSP. We are not similar in geographical location, appearance, personality, age, or research expertise (from a physical sciences perspective, anyway, but perhaps we are the same from a biosciences perspective). I know it doesn't really mean anything that he thought I was this other FSP*, but it was yet another strange little aspect of our "conversation".

* For example, in the class I am teaching now, there are 4 particular students who seem so similar that it took me 3 weeks to know them well enough to be able to distinguish them correctly and easily. I am sure it would shock them that I see such similarities; they very likely do not see any such similarities (even if they have the same hair/clothes and they have similar or identical -- in the case of two of them -- names).

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Dealing with Disrespect

A reader wrote with a quandry about teaching students who are openly disrespectful. I have modified the e-mail message to remove some possibly-identifying details.
Some background: I'm a recent PhD graduate in my late 20s, working as a postdoc in a science field. The postdoc includes teaching one class a year, and I get to initiate and design the class based on my research area, which is really great. 

I've already taught this class once and it went over well. The class at that time didn't count for the major, so it was small and everyone who was taking the class was genuinely interested in the subject. I built a rapport with the students, and ended up with great evaluations that way exceeded my expectations.

This time, the class counts for the major, and my enrollment has increased to over 40. This is good, but now I have a variety of students, at least some of whom are only taking the class to complete their major.

While the students are actually better prepared on average than last year's class, they're extremely demanding -- not just about getting help understanding, which I appreciate and am happy to oblige -- but on details of how I run the class: they want me to make detailed powerpoint slides for every lecture, write practice tests, provide test outputs for their programming homework, and so on. I'm already stretched extremely thin, and besides, I don't want to spoon-feed them! My lectures are actually clearer than when I gave them last year -- and there were no complaints then -- so I don't think my teaching style should be causing problems. They also object to how I demand some degree of class participation and cold-call people for answers. 

The biggest problem I have, though, which is the real reason I'm writing to you, is that I unlike last year, I don't feel I have the respect of the majority of the students -- specifically, many of the male students. I lucked out with a niche set of students last year, but I get the sense now that many of the students have a preconception about my intelligence and ability. For example, today, I made a minor error running through the details of an algorithm. I clarified it quickly and the rest of the class went fine, but several people snickered or rolled their eyes when this happened and continued well after we were back on track. Obviously, errors and confusion in lectures are frustrating for the students, but I'm concerned they're expressing it by snickering so openly. There have been other instances -- for example, students being quick to assume I've made a mistake in writing out a formula, when it's really them misreading it.

Do you have any suggestions on gaining their respect while not being authoritarian (which I anticipate will also cause problems due to my gender)? I am very confident in my knowledge of the material, and fairly confident with leading a classroom, and these reactions are disturbing.
This reminded me of some experiences I had in my early years of teaching. I admit that I never dealt with this sort of situation in any active way. I did try to convey the impression that I was aware of the disrespect (not clueless about it) and was unimpressed by it, and I always hoped that by being calm and teaching the class the best way I knew how, the jerks would get a little bored. Sometimes this mostly worked. 
I think being relentlessly calm (without losing your sense of humor or passion for the subject you are teaching) is very different from being authoritarian. You can be authoritative without being authoritarian.

The only thing that really worked for me was to get significantly older than the students. That is not very satisfying as advice though.

Does anyone have any better advice? Have any of you dealt with this type of situation and found a way to silence the snickerers? Does being authoritarian work (assuming you can pull it off effectively)?


Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Academic Life is Good

Agree or disagree? (see below)

I happen to agree. Not to minimize anyone's stress in their academic job or to discount the anxieties that come with the pressure to get grants, publish papers, advise students, teach teach teach, travel, answer endless surveys from administrators who want to know about our quality of life but whose response seems to be to make life more difficult, and so on, BUT a reader writes:

.. from talking to male and female colleagues with kids, and having my daughter recently myself I find the idea that Academia is (more than other careers) hostile to family life to be hugely overblown. 
How many other jobs can you basically decide to set your schedule to be whatever hours you want, or even to work from home much of the time (I know several faculty members who have done this when they had young children and remain successful)? 

What other job lets you take 3 months in the summer to work on your own with few other obligations (some faculty I know work from home 4/5 days during the week in the summer)?  

What other career gives you 6 months to work from home or even another state if you want to, with no other work obligations, every 5-7 years (I know faculty who have taken a sabbatical basically to raise their infants)? 

And all of this while you are doing work you love that is intellectually stimulating, allows a standard of living well above average (and job security to rival a government job - even better at present!), and is physically safe.  

I am sick and tired of the privilege I see coming from academics.  Some people have to actually work for a living.  They work their bodies to death, and their minds to jelly because they have to.  We are lucky.  So, Damn, Lucky.  

What we need to do now, is convince more women of this and stop scaring people away with this idea that Academic science is some kind of hell that will destroy your life, your soul, and your family and any sane person would stay away...  I think maybe some people have selective memories...  It certainly doesn't seem to match with what you've described of your home life, or really that of any academic I've met. 

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

She Would Not Wish This On Her Nieces

From e-mail from a reader (text modified to remove possibly-identifying details):

I had traveled to a conference with some colleagues, including my husband. 

The first person who greeted us was a conference organizer. We introduced ourselves by our full names. It was a small conference and we assumed that, as an organizer, he would have looked at the list of attendees. I was greeted with a broad smile and "Oh, so you're just along for the 'ride'."

Over the next two days, my colleagues, husband, and I lost count of the number of intended and unintended gender-targeted put downs and innuendos.

My career in [this field] spans 25 years and I am often asked to become involved with groups encouraging young women in Science and Engineering. As I would not wish this environment for my own nieces, I am unable to promote STEM as a good choice for females.

Over the years, as I have attended some of the same conferences as my scientist-husband, the assumption that he is attending the conference and that I am his guest ('along for the ride') has occurred a few times, but not recently. This e-mail was a sad reminder that this still occurs. How is it that some people -- and most specifically conference organizers -- have not yet gotten the memo about how The Wife might be a scientist or engineer or mathematician?

Here is a short version of the memo, for handy reference: Don't assume.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Hawking, Dawkins, and me

It is not every day that Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, and I appear in the same essay in Nature (11 September 2013).

In fact, it was so thrilling that I did not even take exception to the fact that the journal Nature thinks I am "free from the constraints of celebrity". So that's why they don't publish more of my papers -- they don't want me to get too constrained. Thank you, Nature!

Anyway, it is a bizarre essay, and I mean that in a nice-ish way, speaking as a self-selected unconstrained blogger-person who may or may not* write about her workaday reality, but who is at least talking to herself, or the Universe, but probably not to Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins. And I am OK with that.

Hawking's recent memoir doesn't fare too well in the review by Robert Crease in Nature.

It is a concise, gleaming portrait, not unlike those issued by the public relations department of an institution.

Hawking, or perhaps his soul, is compared to a black hole. Ouch.

Other reviewers are not so harsh: Hawking comes across as an understated, hard-working, and likable physicist committed to understanding and explaining the cosmos. [Boston Globe]

I am not a memoir-reading person, so I do not have a strong opinion about whether such works should be polished, soul-baring, and/or filled with previously unknown and juicy details** about the author. I suppose the point is, however, to give a reasonably accurate picture of at least a part of one's life, although the choice of what to include or omit is likely to annoy various readers no matter what.

That is an advantage of a blog (and perhaps that is the point of the essay in Nature). I don't have to summarize my life, such as it is, in a concise way with perfect balance between the mundane (the everyday life of a scientist and teacher), the awesome (my most favorite scientific discoveries or teaching moments), the absurd (see posts on "gender-directed weirdness"), and the cats (see posts labeled "cats"). Unfortunately, blogging can be a bit of a black hole, but then so are faculty meetings, effort reporting, and filing annual grant reports on research.gov.

* phrase added to keep alive the rumor that this blog is written by cats
** My family had three identical cats named Fluffy by the time I was 9 years old; not a one of them was actually fluffy.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

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.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

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.

Friday, August 09, 2013

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. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

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.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

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.

Monday, July 01, 2013

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.

Friday, June 14, 2013

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?
pollcode.com free polls 

Monday, June 03, 2013

Professor Babysitter

Earlier this year, I got a panicked call from a younger relative who was about to give birth to her second child. The baby was about 10 days early and everything was fine, but my relative and her husband had no real plan for a babysitter for their 2.5 year old in the event that the new baby came early. That is, no real plan other than calling me and asking me to take care of their daughter.

I must admit that my first thought was not "Of course! Just let me know what I can do to help!" It was more like "Me?? Are you serious?"

They were serious. They selected me because I fit the following criteria: (1) female, (2) relative, (3) parent, and (4) I could get to their location sooner than other female relatives who have kids. Never mind that my daughter is in high school and I have not taken care of a little kid in many many years..

These relatives are a bit traditional (hence their criteria), but what could I do? It didn't seem the right time to be annoyed that they would never ask a male relative to take a day off from work. My relative is a stay-at-home mom and has never had a career. To her, only another mom could take care of her daughter, and her preference was for that mom to be me.

My mind boggled at the number of people I was going to inconvenience at work by canceling or postponing meetings and other events -- undergrads, grads, staff, colleagues, a dean, an off-campus group with which I have been working -- but I sent off a raft of emails and raced off to babysit for an unknown amount of time.

I did make one quick stop on the way -- I ran into a store and acquired paper, crayons, stickers, crackers, juice.. just in case. Then I went to the hospital where my relative was in labor, her husband was freaking out, and their daughter was sitting strapped in a stroller that was soaking wet because her dad had not changed her diaper for many hours. Before leaving their apartment, he had grabbed exactly 2 books and one paisley-patterned stuffed animal of uncertain species. I was glad I had brought some supplies.

I asked my relative-in-law what his daughter might want to eat for lunch and he said, and I quote, "I don't know. Her mom always feeds her."

So my babysitting adventure began. Yikes it has been a while since I spent so much time taking care of a 2.5 years old. It was exhausting even though my little relative is an extremely cute, affectionate, and (mostly) well-behaved kid.

It turns out that my babysitting had to be confined to the hospital waiting room, lobby, and cafeteria, as my relatives wanted their daughter nearby. This was challenging, but fortunately there were things to see and discuss, such as a decorative pond that we agreed should have had fish in it (but didn't), some religious statuary that I found difficult to explain (so I just made stuff up), and waiting room brochures about some rather adult topics (I made up more stuff).

In fact, we had lots of fun playing weird little games with stickers, rhyming words, and the bizarre stuffed animal her dad had brought even though it is one she "hates". I felt that her hatred of this animal was justified, and that this allowed me to throw it in the air without fear of causing her emotional trauma. In fact, throwing this dog(?) around occupied us happily for at least 20 minutes of that very long day.

It turned out that the 2 books her dad had hurriedly packed were both bedtime books and she absolutely refused to read them during the day because it was not bedtime. This was reasonable. I had brought my iPad, so I started downloading books onto it: ones I remembered my daughter had liked. When my daughter was that age, we only read physical books, so this was new for me, reading e-books with a little kid. We spent quite a lot of time reading, then we enhanced the adult-topic brochures with stickers of frogs and ladybugs.

Taking care of this little girl definitely brought back memories. When we were playing by the fishless pool, she said "no fish" about 57 billion times, over and over and over. I tried to be very Zen about it but at some point I realized I was going to go mad, so the next time she said "no fish", I said "no whales". This is exactly what I used to do with my daughter lo those many years ago, but I didn't know how this particular little girl would respond. She stared at me, her eyes huge, her brain churning, and then carefully said "no seals". So I said "no dolphins". We worked our way through every sea creature we could think of, and then, miraculously, my relative-in-law texted me to say that the new baby had arrived! Yay!

But I was not done babysitting. I was not done because my relative-in-law would not yet tell us whether the baby was a boy or a girl because he first had to call his parents and tell them and then he had to call his parents-in-law and tell them and then he could tell his daughter and then he could tell me. He asked us to go back to the waiting room so we would not overhear the "gender reveal" in his phone conversations with the grandparents. Is this normal? Is this some tradition of which I have thus far been unaware? We went back to the waiting room and threw the paisley dog(?) around some more until it was our turns to hear the news (it was a boy).

Eventually the new family was united and even though I think they would not have minded if I continued to babysit for the next few hours or weeks, I decided my work there was done. My relative-in-law was very kind in thanking me for helping them out, but he also told me that he thought the experience had been very good for me. In some ways he was right, but when he said that I realized I needed to go back to my own planet as soon as possible.

What, if anything, did I learn?

It is possible to miss a busy day of work and survive, although there are times when I have doubted this. I am sorry that others were inconvenienced, but I am glad I was able to help out my relative in her time of need.

I can't imagine wanting to live the way these relatives live (I am sure they feel the same about me). Mom takes care of kids; Dad works. Dad doesn't even now how to feed or change his daughter (and now his son). And yet, I like them. They are nice people. And their daughter is a happy, smart, busy little kid.

I am glad my daughter is a teenager. I have enjoyed every age that she has been; every age has been my favorite. I am not at all nostalgic for her baby-years.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Not The End of Men Quite Yet

Not long ago, a colleague discussed with me the recently-concluded faculty search in his department. His department decided to hire a male candidate, and my colleague told me he was relieved. In fact, he said to me, "It's so good to know that men can still get hired. I thought we could only hire women, so it's nice to know that men can still get hired." This statement seemed a bit bizarre to me for several reasons, including the fact that the department in question had no female assistant professors at the time of this statement. 

It is strange enough that someone would say this to me (but somehow they do anyway), but what does it mean, if anything? Of course, I hope it does not mean that when a woman is hired, some will think that she was hired mostly/entirely because she is a woman and the department finally had to hire one of those. And if anyone does think that, I hope it does not affect how they treat their new colleague and how they view her work as a professor. (I know enough of the context of this particular situation to know that there are unlikely to be problems in that particular case.)

Nevertheless, as long as there are people who believe that an unbroken streak of hiring men somehow means that men can no longer get faculty positions (in STEM fields), the eventual hiring of a female professor is a situation that calls for vigilance -- by administrators and by faculty -- to make sure any woman hired under such circumstances is not at a disadvantage from the very beginning.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Some Of Them Are Very Bright

As happens from time to time, a science-man having a conversation with me about science, or whatever, will feel the need to establish his I-can-work-with-women creds, even though this is apropos of nothing other than that he is having a conversation with a female scientist (me) at the time, and so he will mention his sincere opinion that a woman or women he worked with is/are actually quite smart. Some of them are even very bright (I heard that one today in an otherwise apparently normal conversation).

Also in a recent conversation of this sort, a science-man told me that he once had to work with a woman who had -- according to what many people told him -- a reputation for being very difficult. He felt that this was a common trait in successful women, and although many successful women realize this and therefore keep a low profile and choose to work behind the scenes (can we call that leaning back?), especially after they get into their late 30s, for some reason this woman chose to stay visible and to work openly with the big male guns even though she was clearly in her 40s (I am not making this up). He did not use the b-word, but he did use the word "shrew" a few times, but -- guess what?!! -- he got along with her just fine. Every once in a while she would start to go shrew on him (I just made up that phrase, it is not a direct quote), but he stayed calm and patient and she would calm down too and they ended up working well together. Yay. 

I do not think less of these men for their misguided attempts to impress me with their progressive opinions of the Female Intellect and/or bizarre hypotheses about the Female Personality in Early Middle Age, but neither am I impressed, just so you know.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Of Course It's True That Professors Grade Easier Than TAs

Last week when I was in a cafe waiting for my mediumskimicedmocha, I overhead one student say to another, "Of course it's true that professors grade easier than TAs", and the other student agreed with that statement. 

Of course! I rather liked this indication that we professors might actually become nicer with time, as opposed to more cranky and mean.

But do you agree with these students? (ignoring the 57 million variables for which we cannot scientifically or otherwise account in discussing this issue now in this blog post and comments).

Some considerations:

- If you used to be a teaching assistant and are now a professor, assuming that you have even a shred of objectivity about this issue, do you think you are an "easier" grader now than when you were a TA?

- If you are a professor now and you teach a class with teaching assistants, do you think you are an easier grader than your TAs? Is this generally true?

- If you are a teaching assistant now, do you have any idea how your grading "hardness" compares with that of the course instructor(s)?

Over the years, in some classes I have been an easier grader than my TAs and in other classes I have not, but if I had to generalize over my career, I would conclude that (1) I am an easier grader now, as a professor, than I was when I was a TA, and (2) I am commonly (but not in every case) an easier grader than most (but certainly not all) of my TAs. I gauge the latter by how many complaints I get about TA grading and, when faced with a grading dispute, whether I think the TA assigned a reasonable grade or was too harsh. [The latter case creates the tricky situation of needing to be fair to the student without undermining the TA, a topic for another day.]

There are likely many explanations for the TAs-are-more-severe-graders phenomenon, but some obvious ones that spring to mind are:

- We are more idealistic when we are just starting out in a career. We have standards, and these are not as flexible as they become later, when we have been teaching for years and might be more willing to reward a glimmer of knowledge as opposed to being severely disappointed that an answer is not as correct or complete as it should be. That does not necessarily mean that we old(er) professors are jaded and have lower standards (though it may).

- At least at the beginning, when we haven't had much experience as a teaching assistant, we don't have much of a basis for comparison and perhaps not much perspective to guide us in the more subjective aspects of grading things involving writing and equations and diagramming. When I was a TA, it was the rare professor who provided much guidance about grading issues such as partial credit, so I mostly made it up as I went along. I figured/hoped that as long as I was consistent, I couldn't go too far wrong.

- A related explanation: Some inexperienced TAs don't have the confidence to give partial credit for partially-correct answers. I recall a time -- many years ago -- when I (the professor) provided a TA with a detailed answer key to an exam. Fortunately I looked over some of the graded exams before handing them back to the students because I ended up having to re-grade several questions entirely because the TA had been inexplicably harsh. For example, in the answer key that I gave to the TA, I had indicated that the correct answer for one question was something like "kitty cat". That was the complete, official name of the thing that was the answer to the exam question, but it did not occur to me that the TA would give students no points if they only wrote "kitty". I should have written on the answer key that "kitty cat" or "kitty" or "cat" were acceptable for full credit, but it didn't occur to me that the student couldn't deal with this level of variability in student answers. Anyone who wrote one of those words clearly knew the answer, so why take off any (or all) of the points? I think the TA just lacked the confidence, and for some reason didn't even want to ask me about it while he was grading.

Now I am wondering: Assuming that I have become easier as a grader with time, have I plateaued or does the grading-easiness trend continue with time (and with what slope on a grading-easiness vs. time plot)?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Why Did You Say That? (in your talk introduction)

A colleague recently commented to me on the tendency for graduate students to introduce their talks at conference by telling the audience that they are students. I had noticed this some (though certainly not all) grad student do this but hadn't really thought anything of it. My colleague didn't like these "I am a student" introductions because he thought the students were saying it to lower expectations or to try to make it more difficult for people to ask challenging questions.

In most cases, it was obvious from various clues (such as the list of coauthors) or prior knowledge that the speaker was a student, so why mention it?

Perhaps my colleague is right about the motivation of some student speakers, but I think there could also be more positive reasons for why a student would mention their studentness in the introduction of their talk. For example, they could be saying "I'm still a student but I was selected to give a talk to present my excellent results and I am or will soon be looking for a job so please pay attention because I am really good."

A possible argument against that hypothesis is that we couldn't think of any postdocs who mentioned their postdoctoralness in a talk introduction. Presumably this motivation would also be relevant to postdocs, if not even more relevant?

I have no idea what the motivation is because I don't think I ever introduced a talk this way when I was a student. I could be wrong because this was a while ago, but I am reasonably certain it wouldn't have occurred to me to introduce a conference talk this way. Therefore, to find out the answer (or, more likely, the answers), I am asking you, the readers who have done this very thing as students, what your motivation was.

And, to the extent that you can determine this, if you had a specific aim in mentioning your student status, did you achieve this aim?

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Life Is Just Unfair To Men

Below is an e-mail message. It seems to refer to a comment (or two) that I did not see, perhaps because they got sent to the spam-box, which I never check. I approve all comments that I see and that are not ads, mysterious links, or obscenity-laden threats. That does not mean that I approve of all comments, just that I don't mind posting things like this. I think they make a dramatic point, though perhaps not the one the author intends.

Dear Female Science Professor:

I notice you haven't published my latest comment.  Some months ago you failed to publish another of my comments which I also thought brought the issues into sharp relief by reversing the roles.

My apologies, the first sentence in paragraph five should read:
"By that same logic, the majority of top scientists, especially in the mathematical sciences have been and should continue to be men."

Do you deny that, with few exceptions (ultra-long-distance swimming being one), the top men are better than the top women at sports?  How can you when the score-sheet says otherwise?  By the same token, how can you deny that the most intelligent men are generally smarter than the most intelligent women, especially when it comes to the maths?

I remember when I was younger watching sports on TV and thinking how unfair it was for the women.  As I grew older, I realized that life was just as unfair to men, only in different ways.  This is why I suggest you read Norah Vincent's book "Self Made Man."  Here is someone who has seen it from both sides and firmly decides that she prefers to be a woman, a conclusion that does not surprise me in the slightest.

As I have been burned by what I now realize is a strong sexual double standard in academia (and not in favour of men) I am not the person to argue these things objectively.  I am still quite filled with rage.  There is, however, a woman on Youtube who argues many of the points I would like to touch on in a way that is very rational and objective.  Her channel is "girlwriteswhat":

I would suggest you check it out as well as Norah Vincent's book.

Kind regards,