The Absentminded Professor

I’m not sure when I became “that professor”… you know, the one who can’t be counted on to answer emails, be prompt at meetings, or follow through in a reasonable amount of time. We all know one or two – we tell our students not to bother emailing them or ask them for a letter of recommendation, and we tell our colleagues not to start collaborations with them. It’s not because they aren’t smart, or congenial, or even effective researchers and teachers… by and large just have way too much on their plate, and haven’t figured out how to juggle it all effectively.

This past fall semester, after two years mostly focused on prepping new classes and trying to get a handle on teaching and academic advising, I was finally able to take a breath. That peace only lasted until I started giving all of my other responsibilities the attention they deserved. My service load has increased and I’ve joined multiple department and university committees. I’ve tried to get back into writing and research with collaborators who I kind of ignored for two years. Most importantly, I’ve been focused on getting student research projects underway, designing their projects and finding funding (applying for over a dozen small grants this year). All this meant that although some parts of my job had started to feel manageable and sustainable, all of the new pieces meant that I was feeling even busier.

Things started falling through the cracks. I forgot to send one (or two) letters of recommendation. I was late to a department meeting. My inbox grew with things that deserved my attention, many of which didn’t even need a lot of my time. I could tell I was holding back colleagues on collaborative projects. I missed a review deadline by enough time the journal un-requested my review. Any one thing could have been a blip, but eventually it dawned on me that I was on the road to becoming that unreliable, absentminded professor – the one nobody wants to collaborate or work with. I’d seen a few of my peers accidentally burn bridges by being terrible collaborators, and I didn’t want that to be me – and I also didn’t want to lose the trust of my students or mentees because of my inability to keep track of details.

I tried a variety of ways to get things under control, some of which worked and some of which didn’t.

  • Tougher student email policy: The first thing I tried was telling students that I wouldn’t respond to emails about class outside of business hours and that email was strongly discouraged. I figured this would have two benefits – I would get fewer emails, and students would need to think (and perhaps look in the syllabus) before they sent me an inane question. I certainly got fewer emails! However, I relaxed this policy after one semester (see below).
  • Close the ‘open door’ office: I think it is a great idea to have an open door policy, where students can stop by and ask questions outside of official office hours. In my department it’s mostly open doors, particularly with the younger professors. However, I figured that removing constant interruptions would make me more efficient. It did, but combined with my email policy students felt I was not helpful or available and my student evaluations seriously suffered. I’m not sure it was worth the mild boost in productivity.
  • Weekly meetings with all of my research students: My advisor in graduate school was very hands-off, so that’s the way I started with my mentees. By the beginning of the Spring semester I realized that I was having a hard time keeping track of everything. Weekly meetings has had the dual benefit of giving them more face time with me and also reminding me what’s going on in the group and how it all fits together.
  • Asking for everything in writing: I feel like a broken record every time one of my students asks me for something or reminds me of an obligation. I immediately say “send me an email with what we just decided”. I suppose if I had a better day planner I could write it all down, but email is available everywhere, all of the time. This has really helped with my forgetfulness.
  • Reducing my access to email: It turned out that for me one of the best ways to keep on top of email was to check it less often.  I only check my work email when I am either waiting for something specific to come in or know I have time to respond to emails. I removed the app from my phone so it’s a pain check my work email (also good for work-life balance!).
  • Answering emails right away: If I have time to read an email, I have time to respond if that response is going to take less than one minute. No procrastinating, period. Probably THE most important thing I did for making sure things don’t slip through the cracks. I clear my inbox quickly, and leaving only difficult or time consuming emails that then stand out. As an added bonus students and other people get very timely responses.
  • Keeping a to-do list: This is a no brainer, but I found that having a to-do list keeps me focused and on track. I tried a few different apps that categorize and highlight and send reminders, but in the end I’ve found a simple Word document has been sufficient.
  • Use of a calendar app (with reminders): Putting everything in an online calendar that sends reminders to my phone has been helpful, although not perfect.If I forget to move something from a students’ email I’m likely to still miss it. I also need to figure out how to set it up for earlier reminders… the default of ten minutes isn’t really cutting it when I’m in a different city and realize I have a meeting.

Overall I think I’ve made strides, although it’s going to be challenging to stay on top of everything as I keep getting thrown new balls to juggle. I keep hearing that expectations and obligations will be even higher after tenure. I have a few mentors that inspire me with how they manage to do it all AND keep track of the small things. How do you?

When Teaching is Like Social Work

I am writing from the 11th week of our semester and kicking myself. What was I thinking agreeing to write a post at the end of April? So here you have my most honest and unfiltered thoughts now that I am nearing the end of my first year teaching community college full time.

Wow. It is hard. It is brutally hard on my body in a way that is completely unfamiliar from my previous experiences in higher ed. Teaching so many students at two different campuses requires much more communicating than I have done as an academic introvert. And it’s not just the teaching/ meeting with students/ grading responsibilities. While my students try to complete freshman writing, they are dealing with childcare worries, hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction in their families, and significant health concerns. While I have been decent at setting boundaries in my past teaching experience, I find the cumulative weight of teaching in poverty conditions is starting to get to me. I am even questioning where those boundaries should be now that I am seeing life seep into school for all of my students. Is it really fair to ask them to talk to me mainly about their classwork?

In graduate school, I taught one writing course, or one literature course at a time. I usually had 25-30 students and there was a quiet consensus among grad students that we should be terrifying on the first day of class so that we could shrink the enrollment. This seems completely illogical to me now. In a research-focused culture, students (especially struggling, unmotivated, or underprepared students) are a distraction from the real work, and if they don’t learn, that is seen as their own fault. In a community-college context, it’s the opposite. We have a massive course completion problem that becomes a degree completion problem and a transfer problem. So I am slowly learning to change my ideas of student effort, and the value of resistance in those students who I would have ignored or allowed to drop. What is truly surprising to me is that my colleagues and I shared a belief that we were engaged in a social justice mission as educators in a public university. How can so many motivated scholars miss the glaring flaw in our teaching practices?

I’m looking forward to reading Alexander Astin’s new book Are You Smart Enough? How Colleges’ Obsession with Smartness Shortchanges Students after I saw his interview in The Chronicle this week. I was struck by this passage:

“We concentrate far too much on our smartest students. Smartest in the traditional sense, kids who get the highest grades and test scores. We put tremendous emphasis on these students to the detriment of everybody else — the average student, the underprepared student. We have created an institutional structure that reflects this bias. Teaching an average student doesn’t get any value in academia. And a side effect of all this is we define smartness in a very narrow sense.”

In elite environments, innate talent shines brightly, especially for those whose intelligence aligns with the cultural values of whiteness and wealth. I remember a friend of mine in high school whose family paid for her to take the SAT 6 times, with a test-prep course before each attempt. I can’t imagine how much money they spent on that test. She ended up doing very well eventually and found herself at an elite university in the northeast. This is not a judgment of my friend or her family- I can see why they would use their resources in this way. It is rather a belated indictment of an academic system that I cherished because I thrived there. Now that I work in rural poverty, I cannot believe how wrong I was. Teaching engaged students who live on a verdant campus and get fed every day was easy for me. I plan to do a lot of writing in the future on what I would have needed to do in graduate school to prepare for the career I have now.

So that’s really it. I am exhausted in week 11 and thinking about how elitism works, particularly about how I was able to thrive in academia  and how much I need to learn so others can thrive here. I welcome your thoughts.

Guest Post: The Storm Is Coming

Today’s guest blogger, Fernside, is a PhD student in Ecology


This past year has brought an increasing number of highly visible cases of prominent male professors accused of sexual harassment and/or assault. First it was astronomy with Geoff Macy and Timothy Frederick Slater. Then Christian Ott in Astrophysics. In February it was Jason Lieb, molecular biologist at the University of Chicago, and paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond at the Museum of Natural History in New York.

I watch the media storms getting closer and closer to my own discipline and wonder whom it will hit first.

Believe me, in ecology we have stories too. The lack of public stories does not mean we do not have them. For every Geoff Macy or Jason Lieb there are dozens of cases that get hushed up, settled quietly, swept under the rug. And for every formal report that is filed, hundreds of incidents are never reported. They range from a senior male professor physically blocking you in a corner while talking during a departmental happy hour to inappropriate comments about a student/employee’s looks or sexual activity. From the supervisor who stares at his post doc’s breasts during meetings to the guy with wandering hands at conferences and retreats, to attempted rape, to rape, and everything in between. Continue reading

Guest Post: Implementing boundaries as a PI

Graduate school was a rough transition. After college, I struggled to find my footing with the relative lack of structure of a graduate curriculum. The lab I chose for my thesis research turned out to be a powerful source of support that grounded me as I navigated this transition. The incredible group of grad students, post-docs and research technicians in this lab made failed experiments and projects, uncertainty about whether I could be a successful scientist and other struggles more manageable. They also contributed to a fantastic intellectual environment that was utterly rigorous, willing to question accepted scientific premises, pushed members to think critically and deeply about their own projects and celebrated hard-earned scientific accomplishments. This environment seemed to me the best of what science could be and convinced me that if I could, this was what I would want to do as a career.

The lab that I performed my post-doc convinced me that my experience in graduate school was not an anomaly. I joined a young lab, which included one other post-doc, a graduate student and a research technician. I confronted additional failures (an inability to get funding in my first year, dissatisfaction with my project and its progress, difficult conversations with my advisor). However, being able to talk about these issues with the other members, who were experiencing similar challenges, eased any sense that there was something wrong with me and my approach to thinking about and doing science. In addition, as my and other projects in the lab began to blossom, the intellectual excitement and thrill were palpable and cohesive forces.

This emotional reliance on other lab members, people who were usually at somewhat similar life and career stages, became obvious to me when I began staffing my own lab as a PI. I was suddenly aware as PI that I occupied a very different place in the relationships amongst the members of my lab. Continue reading

Double Jeopardy: Women of Color and Gender Bias

We are probably aware of reports such as “Why So Few?: Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” by the American Association of University Women
and studies such as these:

  • Even when math skills were identical, both men and women were twice a likely to hire a man for a job that required math (Reuben, Sapienza, & Zingales, 2014) .
  • In academic laboratories in elite universities, male (but not female) scientists employed fewer female than male graduate students and post docs (Sheltzer & Smith, 2014) .
  • A double-blind randomized study gave science faculty at research-intensive universities application materials of a fictitious student randomly assigned a male or female name, and found that both male and female faculty rated themale applicant as significantly more competent and hirable than the femalewith identical application materials (Moss-Racusin, Dovidio, Brescoll, Graham & Handelsman, 2012) .

What has been less studied is the way issues of bias impact women of color. Continue reading

Celebrating the village that ‘raised’ me

Earlier this week, Professor Terry McGlynn shared his story of how he found science as a career path on the Small Pond Science blog. As a woman in the academy who is also a scientist, I wanted to share some of my story.

Why? It’s not that I think I have a particular unique path to where I am now. Mostly I want to share it because there can be so many difficult things about being a woman in science and a woman in the academy. I’d like to take this opportunity to celebrate the path that led me here, to a mental and physical place where I work hard to do work I enjoy while mentoring women students in science – and to thank (although anonymously here) the many women mentors who helped get me here. It takes a village!

There’s certainly a stereotype that kids who have chemistry sets or collect fossils are the ones who grow up to be scientists. Maybe that’s true, but that wasn’t my path – and it wasn’t the way I was brought up. Continue reading

Is your department toxic? A handy guide, with gifs

If animated gifs make things unreadable for you, click here for the gif-less version.

Your academic department can seem a bit like a family: you’re deeply connected, and they can be your best friends and biggest advocates, but also a tremendous source of stress. You’re forced to interact several times a year, so even if something goes wrong, you can’t necessarily avoid them. There’s often that one eccentric person who says the most outlandish stuff at holiday parties or meetings. And, like family, they pick you (for the most part); you don’t have a lot of choice in who you end up with.

The latter isn’t technically true, because you should be vetting a department when you interview, but a lot of the more toxic aspects of departmental culture can be hidden when you’re being recruited and everyone is putting their best face forward. Like an advisor or lab culture, the interconnected nature of academia means that departmental culture can make or break your experience if you’re not careful.

Continue reading