Family business

In general, when I see blog posts or articles talking about work-life balance, the main theme is how to balance work and babies. I am not dismissing this as a real and important issue, but for childless workaholics like myself, it’s not always the advice that we need. It was very refreshing then when last week I came across this post from Tenure, She Wrote, entitled “Family is about more than babies“. The post is about how the writer had to go home and help her aging parent recover from a nasty injury, and about how things like that are a big part of  what we mean by “family obligations”. I was especially struck by her concluding paragraph:

“When we talk about work-life balance, family-friendly workplaces, reasonable expectations for tenure and promotion, family leave and so on, we need to recognize that this isn’t just about babies and young children. It’s about all of us with any sort of strong personal connection with another human being.”

This resonated with me on so many levels, and it also helped me put some things in perspective. Mainly, it reminded me that even though I am not directly responsible for keeping young humans alive, I do have family obligations that I take very seriously, and I shouldn’t feel guilty about prioritizing those over my job. For example, I try to visit my family at least once a year. This is not a trivial task, since they live in Venezuela and it is expensive and difficult to get there (and I imagine many of the International readers of my blog have even more expensive and difficult places to go to see their family). This eats into summer research time, and into Winter break time, so I don’t get as much work done during those breaks as someone who may have family living a few hours away.

This semester was particularly difficult for me. First of all, my grandmother was very ill in February and it was very hard to experience that from far away and to not be able to help in any way. Part of the problem was that due to recent issues between the Venezuelan government and the usual airlines that fly to the US it is very difficult to find plane tickets, especially last-minute ones.  Secondly, there is a lot of turmoil in Venezuela (which maybe you have heard about) making me fear for my entire family’s safety combined with a feeling of extreme sadness for my country and its people. This distracted me quite significantly from work. I spent a lot of time on the phone and on Skype, reading the news, and not grading or doing research.

For a while, this feeling of dread for my family was compounded by a very real feeling of guilt about not giving enough focus to my job. I think the point of view that this was part of my “family obligations” is therefore a very healthy one. I should have been grading in a more timely manner and doing more research this semester, that is true. What I think we need to learn is that sometimes you have something more pressing that needs your attention, and this will invariably happen when you have “any sort of strong personal connection with another human being.” I’m not sure I was the best I could be at my job this semester, but what I have decided is to just cut myself some slack. I know many of us go through difficult times, and we have to remember that we are human, that we do have strong connections to other human beings, and that it is OK if their well-being is high on our list of priorities. It’s funny, though, that I have to say this so explicitly. It’s an interesting business, the one we’re in, that we can’t always feel justified in not being 100% committed to our work. But a lot of this is self-imposed, and what I propose is to give ourselves some room to be just human.

I am sure many of us have similar conflicting feelings of dedication to our jobs and to our families, so please share any thoughts, strategies, and coping mechanisms in the comments section below.

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How to avoid looking like a jerk

Recommendation season is ending soon (although like the Winter, it seems to be dragging on forever). Math professors and instructors everywhere have been writing and sending letters of recommendations for their students since last Fall for various reasons, like academic jobs, grad school, REUs, and summer internships. It is a delicate process, and you want to make your students look as good as they possibly can, while at the same time trying to maintain your reputation as a trustworthy judge of the student’s talent and preparation for these different tasks. You are possibly writing for many students and you want to speak highly of all of them but still individualize the letter so that it’s clear why each student is worthy of the thing you are recommending them for. I have written many (MANY) such letters myself recently, so I understand how difficult, time consuming, and complicated this process is. But there is no excuse to sound like a jerk. In particular, there is no excuse to sound like a sexist jerk. I am referring to the not-the-compliment-you-think-it-is statement “Best female student I ever had”  and all of its variations. There are so many things that are wrong with this phrase, but I’ll focus on three.

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A collaborator visits

This week, I have been hosting my collaborator Leila Schneps here at Bates. The main pretext was to have her give our annual Sampson lecture. This lecture series was started to honor the late Richard W. Sampson, who taught at the Bates math department for 38 years. Leila gave an excellent talk related to her recent book Math on Trial: How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom. This provided me with a great opportunity to get my students in my liberal arts math class to see how math has some real world applications (although I’m not sure they believe me yet). But of course, when you are able to fly your collaborator in from France, you also try to finish writing that paper that you’ve been working on for a year.

I have traveled to conferences, workshops, and to collaborate, but this is the first time I have hosted someone for a week, and it’s been a very different experience. Mainly, for all of those other collaboration experiences, I did not have to teach. I was either on sabbatical, on break, or found subs for my classes. I have no idea how people juggle these things, but preparing for and teaching a class while also trying to do math the rest of the day has proven very challenging. The way I do this when I’m on my own is by setting aside some time every week for my research (although as I have mentioned before, this usually falls apart by the end of the semester). But I want to maximize the time with my collaborator, and really really want to finish proving something, and that means I have no time to grade, very little time to prepare for lecture, and I end up doing lots of things late at night because that’s when we finish working. I basically told my students that office hours were non-existent this week. They know it’s because I’m working on math, and are very respectful of that, but I still feel like they are not being taken care of enough.

However, it has been really exciting to be working on math so much. Usually, like I said, teaching and taking care of my students takes priority over everything. I end up working on research maybe one day a week, and sometimes I get inspired on the weekends (that is, if I don’t have too much grading to do). But this level of mathiness has not been accomplished within my own territory, well, ever. So I’m excited to see if I can try to keep some of this momentum for the rest of the semester.

Anyway, this is probably a dilemma for the rest of my career. Balancing teaching and research is very difficult, and I’m not sure people have a good recipe for it (although I’ve heard lots of advice, like: don’t watch TV,  get someone to clean your house, always teach the same thing, don’t have friends…). But I pose the question to you, dear readers. How do you balance teaching and research without feeling like you’re always just taking turns sacrificing one for the other?  Is there a better way to think about this problem? Please share any thoughts, advice, or experiences, in the comments section below.

Posted in balancing research and teaching | 4 Comments