Saturday, September 30
Let me preface this with a reminder that I am a new assistant professor, a divorced mother of a school-age child who only sees his father a couple times a year, and live with an academic who never takes a day off.

Here's a conversation that I had with a neighbor the other day. He's up for tenure this year at the same institution, in a discipline much like my own.

Neighbor: "How are you? How's the term going?"
Me: "Eh... really, really busy and stressful. I guess it's just the life of a new assistant professor."
Neighbor: (skeptically) "Gee! That busy, already. The term just started."
Me: "Yeah."
Me: "Hey, what's it like having a pot-bellied pig? Do they take a lot of work?"
Neighbor: "I don't know. You'll have to ask Julia (his stay-at-home partner). She takes care of everything around here."
Friday, September 29
I do social-science-y type research, for which I need to file a human subjects protocol with my Institutional Review Board before I'm allowed to go ahead with my research. My project should be "exempt" from review given pertinent federal regulations, but at my institution you have to file an exempt protocol and let them review your application before they agree that you are, in fact exempt.*

Even though my research has nothing to do with health or experiments and mostly involves asking professional people questions about things that happen as a normal result of their work, I have to file a RIDICULOUSLY long and complicated protocol form. The protocol is submitted through a web application, which won't let you move forward or submit your protocol until you have answered every single question.

So, pretend my research was about interviewing members of congress about their past votes.** In filing my exempt protocol, I would have to answer questions about***:

-what I plan to do in case one of my research "subjects" needs medical, psychiatric, or other professional treatment as a result of the research

-whether there are other treatments that would be better for the "subject" than the one I am giving

-what I'm going to do with x-rays and lab specimens after I'm done with them

-why I'm excluding minors from my study

and, my favorite,
-whether my institution could make any money off a patent from this research.

The whole protocol form for "exempt" projects is over 10 pages in length of these irrelevant questions.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm all for review boards in general and I think that protecting human subjects is a really important and vital thing in research communities. It's just that the actual risks to the "subjects" of my research are not addressed at all by these questions, and that the IRB makes people who do social science jump through all the same questions as the drug-testing people, and doesn't let us skip any questions. I would really like to see a protocol review that gets at more pertinent questions, like:

-Are there at least 3 other people, besides yourself, who are likely to care about the outcome of your research?

-How are you going to ensure that your research does not turn into a massive waste of government and/or funder money?

-Please explain what protections you have in place to prevent the oppression of graduate research assistants.

Oh wait. I would probably have to answer "no" to the first question, and except for the fact that the sums involved are miniscule, would have no answer for the second. So maybe I don't want those questions on there after all. Bring on the disposal of biohazard material questions instead!

____________________________________

* This leads to very silly who's-on-first conversations that go:
A: did you file your protocol with the IRB?
B: no, we're exempt
A: but you have to file an exempt protocol before you can be exempt and start your research
B: but if we're exempt, doesn't it mean we don't have to file a protocol?
A: no, you're exempt, so you file a protocol and wait until you get Exempt Approval
B: if they call it "approval", in what sense is it exempt from review?
A: Well, you're not exempt until they say you are exempt.


** All research fields and disciplines have been made up to protect the privacy of the a.secret society.

***The actual wording of these questions is hilarious, but unfortunately I don't want to reveal what institution I'm at, so I'm paraphrasing.
Tuesday, September 26
I tried to figure out how to make this a picture secret, but couldn't make it strong enough.

Here's a recommendation to all those "adminstrators" and other morons: if I have already identified myself as a member of the faculty, do not say loudly -- in front of the rest of the panel -- that it's nice to have young faculty on board, even if looking like a graduate student. It's nothing but insulting, and unless I'm wearing pasties or something my appearance has nothing to do with my position (for the record -- no pasties, just a nice, ironed button-down shirt, jeans, and dress shoes, and I was sitting down).

This plays into the larger climate issues at this institution, at which women are marginalized and minorities ignored (and sometimes attacked). It does nothing to encourage retention or the development of a first class research program. Nor, for the record, does giving a talk on conflict-of-interest issues wherein every example in some way involves the faculty member's wife*.

*Hint: not all of us are men, not all of us have partners who are female, not all of us are married.
Monday, September 25
I have long been a protestor of standardized tests -- even when I took my first PSAT when strawberries was a mere small red dot on the vine. Not because I have never been one of those "I never study and get a 1600" types, but because I do not think they actually measure ability to do well.

Take the GRE for grad school. Now, in my discipline, there are never multiple choice situations. And the quantitative aspects are statistics, complicated statistics that are handled by stat programs. Sure basic math skills are important, but when ever has an academic really figured out an important geometry problem, and then, without a calculator.

Ok, so the verbal section. All important, sure, in theory. But when one is entering a grad program, they should have a) done well in undergrad, b) have demonstrated a capacity to conduct effective research, and c) ability to write well.

The reading comprehension asks questions about what is the next logical paragraph, or title. Then in those lovely books prepared by ETS, they explain that only Y can come after X. I disagree. First of all, writing has a style. An argument can be explained effectively in more that one way. Perhaps Z after X goes better together, even though chronologically Y comes first. This is all a question of style, journal preferences, and topic. And don't get me started on the Writing Analysis section....

And then the ridiculous emphasis that NSF and other organizations place on these scores -- NSF Doctoral Grants /Research grants should not take into strong, if any, consideration standardized tests, but research capability, etc. Maybe the SAT is needed to generalize across different school systems and their grading, and since students still do not know what direction their studies/life will take, general capability is good. But in a specialized field?? I back the idea of subject tests, but carried out in a different manner.

With all the test prep books, the test prep classes, and the test prep costs, it seems to me that aside from being almost useless in determining success in graduate school, it is just one big money making scheme.
Junior professors care most about respect and the climate of departments

Holy Sh*t!

I want to add that departments with bad culture for junior faculty MIGHT also underpay junior faculty, so getting out doesn't necessarily mean a pay cut, even if reports of average wages by rank and discipline at the various universities would seem to indicate that would be the case. My experience is that departments with bad climate often have outliers in their salary distributions mucking-up the big picture. I would also think the argument should be extended to women, people of color, international scholars, and several other classes of minorities--both from the perspective of caring about climate and compensation and from the perspective of actually getting compensation from a department with bad climate.
Thursday, September 21
Where is the check box for Dr.?

Is this Murphy's Law? I spent my entire grad student teaching career correcting students when they called me Professor, or Dr. Fraud, and now, this week alone, I have heard Miss Fraud, Mrs. Fraud, and Ms. Fraud (interestingly, all from women).

I came up with a plan of action for when this occurs in a phone call. When the student says, "Is this Miss Fraud?" I'll reply, "Yes, this is Dr. Fraud." But how do I deal with the interactions in the classroom, hallway, or my office? Or what if they don't ask is it's me on the phone and just launch into "Mrs. Fraud..."

I'm convinced this is one of those annoying forms of unconscious gender bias. A male colleague, who intestingly isn't even a Dr. yet, said that he's never been called Mr. Know-It-All. Students always call him Professor or Dr. Know-It-All.
Sunday, September 17
Here's a post having nothing to do with academia. We've been told those are okay, right?

I'm trying out an online dating service and wondering: if you get an email from someone who doesn't sound like much of a match, is it better to simply ignore them or is it better to write a short little note thanking them for the contact, but saying that you're not interested?

At times like this, it can be helpful to think what you'd prefer. But I'm not sure. If I didn't hear back, I'd wonder. But if I did hear back only to read that the person's not interested, would that really help?

Would you rather be rejected in a cryptic manner (in which case you can always make up some other excuse) or would you rather be rejected outright?
Saturday, September 16
A happy hello from strawberry land!

I apologize for my absence and will inundate you with excuses, ahem, I mean reasons, right away. I can't have you thinking I spent all this time "finding myself"or some other such nonsense. I easily gave that up after two days of grading and realized, who cares. So, after some grading hell, some getting sick, I decided to take up my friend on a spontaneous vacation with those super cheap tickets. While much fun, I came back to too much work, behind-ness, and a conference to attend.

All's been said and done. Conference was attended. And here's my problem -- It was one of those lovely European conferences that are often hard to understand, but that's not it. It was the hierarchy. Now I know EU universities function differently, and that its not about tenure and starting as assistant, and then associate, etc etc. and that people actually collaborate with grad students here. Oh my.

The profs did not even speak to the grad students. Nor to the researchers. Who aren't simple research assistants, but actually teach classes. And when it was time for question asking, it turned into more of a here is what I think since I'm so egotistical, I mean intelligent. And only the profs would ask questions. And they would ask them all in a row. So the same 5 people would tell you what they thought consecutively, and then the presenter would get two minutes to "answer".

The hierarchy was disgusting and disheartening. And then in a field where you would hope axes of power would be examined, all of the profs who spoke were men, and only 10% of the presenters/speakers were women.

On the bright side, these EU conferences really do know how to organize field trips! And they're not the corny tourist tour through conference city, but EACH day a lovely field trip to place that had to do with application of discipline in that city. Oh, and did I mention the food? And each night, an organized entertainment for our benefit.

So, would I go again? Yes, but skip all the presentations and attend every field trip. Until that, down with the hierarchical man.
Friday, September 15
Some (many?) academics seriously lack social skills. Some really really lack them. Occasionally this translates into (or is the result of?) some type of egomania. The problem is, if said academics have advisees then their advisees may "grow up" to think that being so unbelievable egotistical is the norm in academia and not only is it okay, but it is desirable. While in some cases it may have positive outcomes, in most it does not. So what do you do to the young scholar being mentored by such a person? Do you pull him aside one day and say "Look, this is not okay, you really do NOT want to immitate your advisor. Seriously, for your own good, don't go there."

Said advisor's students don't necessarily get great jobs. But one of them a few years ago landed a very good job. It had nothing to do with the advisor, it turns out, but naturally, being the egomaniac that he is, he attributed it to nothing but himself. Unfortunately, it also probably leads his students to think that the advisor is helpful. His students since have only done okay, if ending up with a job at all. If only that would suffice as a hint to future generations.

PS. Don't tell me, "advisor" should've been "adviser" in this entire post? I never got that.
PPS. The "a" in the post's title does not refer to academic, rather, a certain cushy part of a person's bod. The "something" refers to something else.
Wednesday, September 13
Until today, I'd never had someone cry in my office. I guess, technically, I've cried in my office, but this post is about undergraduate students, not the torment of grad school or the stress of being an assistant professor.

Today, though, my kleenex box got a little lighter and my heart a little heavier.

What the hell am I doing to these students? Most of the people who came in to talk about their papers were upbeat. They came in confused, but with my guidance left realizing where they'd slipped up and, most importantly, with a better understanding of the concepts to carry with them from this day forward. One was a little angry, and left even angrier, but somehow I can deal with that psychologically. Maybe I'm used to that. The last student, disguised as a member of the upbeat club, soon showed her true colors. Her chin started to quiver and tears formed in her eyes. Despite all the jokes I made to my male counterparts in grad school about those crocodile tears just being a game girls played to toy with them, I wanted to cry too. Her emotion seemed so raw, and genuine, and I remembered moments in my own undergraduate career where I wanted to cry (I couldn't remember if I had or not).

Maybe it's a game. Maybe it's the stress of being at a competitive school. Maybe it's being a freshman. Maybe it wasn't about me, or the paper, maybe it was something else. But regardless of what it is, I'm going to have to work on my game face.
A graduate student reported to me that her advisor showed her a draft of the letter of recommendation he has written for her for the job market. He asked her to look it over and make whatever corrections seemed appropriate. Overall, the letter was very nice and complementary. But the version also had some corrections of his own. Namely, at the very end of the letter, he wrote, "In my view, this is a 'can't miss' prospect." He had crossed this out.
Monday, September 11
The semester has started, and the hallways are suddenly filled with imminent dangers: Advice-seeking students, administrators who want to dump committee work on me, lost people who want directions, more students, book buyers (who deserve a posting of their own). To make things worse, it's Monday, and you know how much I hate that day! First I was torn between marking my presence (see, unlike some of my senior colleagues, I actually make it to school when I don't teach!) and getting some work done. Now that I've given up on the presence thing (I need to get some work done!), I'm sitting behind my closed door, anxiously waiting for inspiration to kick in. I feel like I've set myself a trap...and I desperately need to pee. Help!
Measuring Up: The National Report Card on Higher Education has just come out for 2006.

Some highlights:
1) The Sky is Falling. Our nation is in dire trouble because we are falling behind and global competition is going to kick our behinds.

2) College costs too much. Only 1 state shows improvement on a majority of the indicators for affordability.

3) It's hard to measure college learning with standardized instruments. But 9 states are praised by NCPPHE (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education) for trying anyway. Coming soon: the one standardized uniform national college exit exam.*

This year's NCPPHE report card is likely to be overshadowed by the release later this month of Secretary Spellings' Commission on Higher Education final report (happily, not in the form of a report card). insidehighered.com has had great coverage of the work of the commission, including an excellent article on how the Dept. of Ed is trying to enact the report's recommendations even before the report is released. Without congress.

The scariest part of the nightmare that is higher ed policy in the US currently is Secretary Spellings' comments on the release of the report card. To the people at NCPPHE who put out the report card, she says “I’m glad to have you with me on the side of the angels,”. Evidently, the angels support standardized learning outcomes assessment, strict accountability and performance indicators, and decreased Pell grants. I personally don't remember the angels saying that in the Bible, but I could be wrong. Maybe it was Charlie's Angels. Whoever the angels are, they seem to have been involved in writing the Commission's draft report, given that the first sentence is about puritans and ministers. PURITANS.

To be fair, there are parts of the NCPPHE and the Commission's agenda that I agree with, like tracking the rates of participation in higher education of people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. But the overall thrust of the report card and the Commission's report is that the liberal yahoos that have been running higher education into the ground need to get out of the way so that accountable, hard-headed, right-thinking people can get down to the business of assessing what students are (not) learning and laying the blame squarely on the shoulders of the latte-drinking liberal elite secular humanists** where it belongs.


* Ok, this is a bit of an exaggeration. Even the most assessment-happy folks think there should be at least 2 or 3 different tests.

** Not angels.
Friday, September 8
As classes are getting started for many of us, I was just wondering if anyone has had that dream where you're naked in front of class, and perhaps you also forgot your notes?

I haven't had it yet, but I know it's on the way. It happens every year.
I spent 5 hours straight tonight watching Law 'N Order reruns on TV. I think this definitely qualifies me as "resident slacker" of a.secret for the day- or at least for those 5 hours.
The truly sad thing is that it wasn't even my favorite Law and Order (Criminal Intent), but the stupid original. Oh - and the truly, truly saddest thing? I've seen a couple of tonight's episodes before.
A graduate student e-mailed me earlier to report the following interaction with an elderly faculty member. A few days earlier, the Professor had returned a copy of Student's vita and statements for the job market with suggestions for a revision. Then:

Professor: Can I have a copy of your vita and statements for the job market so
that I can use them to write my letter of recommendation?

Student: Sure. But I haven't made the changes you suggested yet. Would you like
me to make those revisions first or to give you another copy as is?

Professor: Just give it to me as is. I just need it for reference.

Student prints documents and gives them to Professor. Then, 30 minutes later, Professor returns and hands the documents to Student, having marked them up with virtually the same revisions and comments as the versions given and returned a few days earlier.

Professor: I have a few suggestions for you. I'll need another copy of these so that I can write my letter of recommendation.
Thursday, September 7
...but coming from a family of people with little to no college experience, I heartily relate to this article from today's Chronicle.

It's even got a little something about how much money we (as academics) make, which is clearly an issue close to our hearts.
Tuesday, September 5
Pa ha ha ha! I just got a Call For Papers in my mailbox, and I actually read it because I suddenly have twice as much travel money as I've ever had in my whole career. (Tragic stories omitted.) But these European CFPs crack me up. They are like: We're having a conference. There's no topic. Your fee covers sherry, tea and cookies. There will be a starlight cruise. Send your paper to Fred.

Don't get me wrong, I like the idea of a shipboard panel under the stars (though I may have overstated their plans) and I often find long meals and big breaks more rewarding than endless panels, but I don't understand how to interpret the CFP or how to compare one European conference to another. If I knew "Fred" or if I had the guest list, I might see this differently, but no. Instead, they read as though all I need to know is what kind of amenities will be provided. Is it possible that the amenities really do offer the necessary clues and I just don't have the secret decoder ring--like Hegelians drink port and real men don't eat cookies?
Monday, September 4
I knocked on Angel's door, but there was no answer. I knocked again. Nothing. But I just saw her walk in, and unless she escaped out the window-- I went to my office and rang her phone. Busy. Maybe that explains it. Thirty minutes later the phone was still busy, so I returned to the door and banged vigorously. "ANGEL open the door!" The door opened. "Oh, I didn't know it was you!"

The Angel puts her home phone number on her syllabus and gives her cell phone number to every member of the faculty and staff at the university. She is warm, friendly, open, and accessible. Everyone loves her, and everyone thinks she is their best friend. That's why right now she's hiding in the dark listening to the knocking and the ringing. She can't make it stop, and she can't possibly do all the things people want her to do. It's not humanly possible.

The Cowardly Angel is not a gendered identity, either (though the hiding-in-the-dark strategy might be). The first person I met like this was a powerful male figure in my discipline. College deans and university presidents are often like this, politicians, too. Still, I never really understood the phenomenon until the day I stood outside Angel's door and discovered that she had the ability to sit there in the dark and listen to the knocking.

Disclaimer: Although I do think that all those people have some breaking point or way of dealing with the bottom line, I think their strategies vary, and this hiding in the dark is not the strategy of a famous person. Those people are behind door #3.
My previous post can be read as suggesting that professors, in general, are overpaid. Let's forget that for the moment. Certainly, for those of you who are professors, I do not know how much you specifically are paid and do not want to appear to be passing judgment on whether it is more or less than what you deserve.

So, consistent of what I'm fond of doing anyway, let's just talk about me. Let me amend my statement to say just that I'm overpaid.

More precisely, I'm in a strange position. On the one hand, I would argue--passionately, if I've had a few drinks--that I am presently underpaid relative to certain specific others in my academic proximity. On the other hand, I would argue that I'm already overpaid in abstract moral-justice terms. Why? Because I've found myself at various times being willing to stand at cocktail parties and hold forth on each of the following six propositions:

1. Income inequality in the United States is too high
2. Income inequality worldwide is (way, way) too high
3. Student tuition is too unaffordable for working-class families
4. Graduate students who are teaching assistants or lecturers are paid too little and commonly (depending on institution) deserve better in terms of health care and tuition benefits
5. Academic staff (e.g., secretaries) generally are underpaid for what they do
6. Government spending on people both needier and more deserving than myself is too low

And, thus, even though Scarlet is the official color of passion, icy-blue logic makes it hard for me to be comfortable following these assertions by then joining other professors in complaining about my salary by endorsing that:

7. Your Secret Correspondent Scarlet is underpaid

Because, I ask myself, where do I think the extra money to augment my standard of living should come from? Once I get past the intraprofessoriate comparisons--if their paying him $x, they should be paying me $x--it's hard for me to see how I justify deserving a bigger feeding from the Great Economic Trough.

Oh, and: Happy Labor Day!
Friday, September 1
Clear noted that there are a lot of complaints as secrets, so I thought I'd share a happier one: I love my advisor! She's always so enthusiastic and interesting and supportive. It's a secret because all the other grad students I spend time with constantly seem annoyed or frustrated with their advisors. Sometimes I feel like I have to find something to complain about, so as to not be left out of the conversation, or inspire jealousy. Luckily, there are some things my advisor does, like turn every 5 minute meeting into an hour-plus discussion about the state of our field, that I actually enjoy, but other people conveniently interpret as a bad thing.

It's unfortunate that it seems much more socially acceptable to kvetch about excessive demands and lack of guidance, than to say anything complimentary. My advisor is generally known as one of the nicest people in the department, but surely the other professors can't all be that bad.

Of course, her being so nice makes me feel even worse about my lack of productivity, but this is supposed to be a happy secret, so I'll ignore that for now. I did just write 750 words today! I was tempted to put it off again, but I wanted to be able to show my advisor something for a change. Maybe I should try to focus on making her happy as a motivational tool.

This is what kills me about my particular work environment. I'm in a part of the building where in the abstract six other nicely-paid professors have their offices, and on the typical day I see maybe one or two of them. More commonly than I ever would have imagined when I took this job, none. They come in to dispatch their obligations and then go home, because they "work at home." My guess is that 20% or so of professors actually are more productive working at home, and they provide the rationalization for the astonishing ability of the rest of us to collect salaries far, far above the median for a full-time worker in the United States and yet get to stand in the hallways and complain like a war crime has been perpetrated upon us if schedules require us to come into our workplace more than three days a week.

Yes, I know, the best thing about this job is the autonomy. I agree. I know that academia favors those who are keep-to-themselves-types (even as it simultaneously favors those who are build-large-social-network-alliance-types). But, still.

I am sure it would bother me less if I wasn't single. If I had a family, I would love that I could come into the office and have Total Solitude Time. (And, yet also, I'm sure I'd have less of an opportunity to come into the office and have Total Solitude Time.) Not to sound pathetic, but it's just not much fun to come into work and see no one and then go home and be by yourself as well.

A weird thing about this is that my institution gets very concerned about space and the balance between the principles that office space should be given based on (1) seniority vs (2) specialty area. The argument for the latter is that you put people with similar interests next to each other and soon you'll need to wear sunglasses to work for all the blinding intellectual synergies that ensue. To which I have to physically take hold of my tongue to keep from screaming, "What the hell does it matter? No one is ever here!"
Hair boy is a junior faculty member of our department who uses ken-doll good looks and blow-dried hair to charm his way out of teaching service courses. Hair boy is a shameless self-promoter who will do anything to add a line to his CV, including stealing ideas from his masters-student advisees. I think hair boy's charisma will get him tenure, even though his scholarship is mediocre.