To my colleagues, on the death of their students’ grandmother(s)

It’s entirely possible that I’m just not cool enough to enjoy this “humorous,” “fictional” take on the the phenomena of students manufacturing dead grandmothers during finals week. Maybe it’s because my own grandmother died while I was in college, my grandfather died while I was in grad school, or another grandmother died in while I was in grad school  (are you keeping track? That’s two grandmothers). I missed her funeral to go to a postdoc interview, which is what she would have wanted (I got the job). As the child of divorced, remarried parents, I had four grandmothers, so if I was so unlucky as to have more than one die during the course of your class, then, gee, I guess I’d be in a pickle!

But seriously, I do not get the mentality of seeing your students as adversaries. I don’t get the need to dehumanize them with your disdain, to the point where you need to mock them in aggregate in public. There is a time and a place for venting your frustrations with students being dishonest to get a little extra time on the final (even though it never seems to actually bring their grades up, so seriously, let it go). I get that finals week is stressful for faculty, too (even though your future is pretty certain and you have a job, so it’s not like everything is riding on this one grade). But this idea that we need to single out even fictional students for daring to have a life experience that interferes with your routine?

Acclimatrix is not having any of that, thank-you-very-much.

Let’s set aside the fact that grandmothers die for a second (they do, as I’ve already established with my n of 1). Let’s start instead with the premise that students are people, and bad shit happens to people all the time. The problem is, we don’t  usually hear about it. This might blow your mind, but: dead grandmothers aren’t always dead grandmothers. Grandmothers, as the universal symbol of love and goodness and plausibility, are an un-challenge-able event in the life of a young person. We accept that grandmothers die (at least, we did until the Chronicle updated us on that!). So dead grandmothers may actually be stand-ins for things we won’t accept, can’t know about, shouldn’t know about, or won’t otherwise believe. Sometimes, dead grandmothers are [CW: a diversity of bad shit coming]:

The time I got assaulted and couldn’t tell my teachers, because I couldn’t tell anyone, and I needed a reason to explain why I disappeared so suddenly.

The time I had to take three days to go to Canada to have an abortion and was going to miss the midterm, and I didn’t know if you’d be okay with that.

The time my boyfriend of six years dumped me and I couldn’t stop sobbing, or even take a shower, so of course I couldn’t come to class.

The time the person who actually raised me instead of my parents died, and I knew if I said “Patty died,” you wouldn’t know what that meant.

The time I thought I might have cancer, and had to go home to the family doctor to get a biopsy from my uterus.

The time I had to drive my little sister to the gynecologist for the first time because our mom wouldn’t go with her.

The time I had a miscarriage and I couldn’t tell you I was pregnant because I was afraid you would change how you thought of me.

The time I had to testify for my roommate, for a crime she asked me not to talk about because she was afraid she’d lose her scholarship.

The time I had to work because if I didn’t pay my bill, I wouldn’t get to graduate on time.

The time I spent the whole semester barely treading water because of a deep depression, panicked when I realized the exam was a week sooner than I thought, and needed a way out.

Not all of those are real, of course. I used a fictional “I” as a literary device, to draw you in and make you feel empathy for me. You know, like those kids with dead grandmothers do.

If students are lying, you have no way of knowing if it’s because they spent the entire semester playing drunk Candy Crush, or their grandmother actually died, or the dead grandmother is a stand-in for what they cannot tell you. Being a somewhat optimistic person, I would guess that the vast majority of students are telling the truth, at least in one way or the other.

When you mock students because life happens, and they react, you diminish them. And if that student has already struggled — because they don’t have a supportive family, or financial resources, because of mental illness or a disabling condition, because there is no one in the classroom who looks like them, or for any other reason — they take double damage.

Students see us. They see how we talk about them. They see how we treat them. They hear us when we say we do not believe them. And when you publish those diminishing thoughts in the Chronicle, even as a “joke,” they see the authority of the Academy behind you.

That piece should never have been published (it’s a tired trope that literally adds nothing to our discussions of classroom management), but I’m especially upset that it ended up in the Chronicle. I even have enough empathy to understand the sentiment behind it — I get frustrated, too. But I choose to err on the side of believing in my students’ humanity, because I would not be here if someone had not believed in mine, over and over again. Even when I wasn’t telling the absolute truth.

ETA: I got so mad I forgot to talk about documentation policies! My take? Don’t. Because sometimes the dead grandmother needs to be a stand-in. And even if she’s really dead, don’t make your students cut out their obituary from the town paper. Just don’t be that person.

The Resistance is futile (but it doesn’t have to be)

I’ve been engaging in some resistance activities in the last few months, as one does in these times. Organizations, marches, and coalitions are sprouting like Bernie Sanders stickers on Subarus this time last year. People are fired up, doing things for the first time. And that’s great, it really is! It’s so inspiring to see the new energy, the sense of urgency and purpose, because we’re all coming together for the great cause of equality.

Except when it’s not, because we aren’t.

Before you quit reading or accuse me of being divisive, let me explain: many of my colleagues and friends are new to activism. Trump’s election terrified them and lit a fire under their bums to the point where they are finding themselves doing things — activist, things — they never imagined: calling officials, protesting, rallying, writing letters and op-eds, hanging out at Standing Rock or occupying offices. And many folks are joining or starting new organizations to try to Do Something, Anything, Right Now, to Make Me Feel Like it’s All Going to Be Okay (TM).

What’s the problem with that, you might be asking? Isn’t that good? What could go wrong?

The problem is this: Continue reading

Lady Ghostbusters, Hillary, and what I learned in women-only spaces

Last summer, I submitted a grant application with two women. It was the first time I’ve ever been involved in an all-woman project. Partway through the process, the lead PI revealed she was stressed out — up against another deadline, traveling, and struggling with a chronic illness. The other co-PI and I both sympathized, told her to take care of herself, and asked what we could do to help — we picked up the slack, stepped up with preparing some of the documents that usually the PI handles, and shared a moment of solidarity for a tough time. This attitude continued throughout the process: supportive, helpful, positive, fun. It was so unlike my other grant experiences, in which I have almost universally been the only woman and often the lead PI. I’ve struggled to get materials from co-authors, to get people to answer emails, and had to balance out squabbles amongst the group, but I’ve almost never experienced anything like the proactively supportive environment of that all-women proposal. It was awesome.

All this was happening around the time that the Ghostbusters remake* came out, and I couldn’t help but notice the parallels. Women were helping and supporting each other on screen! They weren’t undermining one another! They were getting shit done, without dehumanizing anyone in the process. Most of my female friends adored it — the representation of women geeks, the direct references to sexist tropes, and the general badassery. Meanwhile, from what I could tell, most men were either absent from the theater, or busy harassing women online about the movie.

I’m  active on social media with my “real name,” and my field is pretty male-dominated. One thing I’ve noticed is that on Twitter, I often stumble into arguments involving pedantic, nit-picky points (which is always super fun when you’re limited to 140 characters), or alternative hypotheses portrayed as absolutes. These encounters are almost always with men — either interacting with me (“Well, actually…”) or with each other. There’s a certain machismo to them that I just find so off-putting — demanding an answer, rather than asking a question. Mocking, rather than earnest dialog. And I hate that this sometimes makes me second-guess my willingness to speak or write about my science in public. Why do these interactions with my male colleagues, who presumably agree with me on most things and share similar interests, have to be so combative?

These experiences have had me thinking a lot about the culture of science, how men and women are socialized differently, and all the myriad ways this plays out. Continue reading

Getting out of a hole

Last year sucked for me in an epic way. Health problems and personal losses, compounded by a long-distance spouse, made me realize just how tenuous pre-tenure life is. When your everyday status is “barely treading water,” there’s no leeway for life to throw curve balls*. I was already overcommitted and doing too much service. Then I hurt myself. My dad got cancer. I had a string of demoralizing events. I ended a couple of long-term close friendships that had become toxic over the years.

I got behind. A lot. And I felt like I didn’t have much of a safety net yet in my new job, so I didn’t ask for help. I avoided the things that were stressing me out. I stopped taking care of myself, partly because of my injury, but partly because I just couldn’t muster up the energy. I dropped balls. A proposal never got submitted. A paper was late, and another one stalled. I didn’t make progress on a workshop commitment. I missed a couple of reviews.

I felt like a failure, and this just exacerbated my anxiety and depression. Lack of progress on my health goals meant pushing back trying for a baby by another year. I regretted not having gotten my reproductive act together sooner, before I lost my dad. I felt like I had no one I could talk to about any of this. I didn’t want my mentors to think I wasn’t worth the time they’d put into me. My family was already suffering and didn’t need me to worry about. I didn’t want to lean too much on my friends or my partner. I felt so self-conscious about not being invincible.

I made a lot of mistakes in the lead-up to my Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year that set me up to have a harder time than I needed to. And then I made poor choices in how I handled (or didn’t handle) what life threw at me. Once you’re in a hole, it’s hard to get out. Much harder, I think, than avoiding the hole in the first place. So what should I have done differently? Continue reading

How do you find the time?

In graduate school, I took up crafting — knitting, sewing, embroidering, quilting, making magnets and sock monkeys and jam? I tried them all. I’ve always liked working with my hands, and the grass roots, eco-friendly nature of the DIY movement was really appealing to me. I also enjoyed learning more about what have traditionally been women’s activities. Embroidering science quotes on pillows felt subversive and oddly empowering. I made me feel closer to my grandmother. It gave me something to do. It was a creative outlet. I met new people, and saved money on holiday gifts. My grad student friends and I would meet for weekend stitch-n-bitches and support each other through tough times.

Crafting also helped my mental health. Watching an episode of Buffy or Alias at night to unwind, I’d find myself unable to relax until I discovered that crocheting silenced that persistent little voice saying “Why aren’t you working?” Because I was working! I was making something! My overachieving neurotic brain was just as satisfied by stitches as by words. I was able to relax, and concentrate on Sidney Bristow kicking ass instead of the pervasive feelings that I wasn’t good enough.

When I started my faculty position, I stopped. I don’t know why. It wasn’t intentional, it’s just that self-care is one of the first things to go when you’re busy. 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

Show me the money: Sexual misconduct after the headlines

Jason Lieb. Christian Ott. Geoff Marcy. Timothy Slater.

Four well-respected scientists, recently outed as having had repeated sexual misconduct violations, often at multiple institutions. Four names that have come out in just a short time, and one wonders who’s next. Because we all know there will be another name. And another name. And another name.

And what about the names we don’t know? The missing stairs? Calling attention to these cases often comes at an incredible personal cost to the women filing reports. That cost — to personal health and safety, to careers, to well-being and livelihoods — is rarely if ever balanced by the repercussions for the person committed the misconduct in the first place. Can we blame women for not coming forward when coming forward is personally risky and has a low likelihood of making a difference?

I’d like to think that this is changing. That the Liebs, Otts, Marcys, and Slaters are sending a message. That the NSF’s recent statement of non-tolerance for harassment will scare universities into doing what Title IX apparently failed to do — prevent sexual misconduct. Continue reading