Fake It Till You Make It, Then Fake It Some More

I hope my previous column didn’t give the impression that this blog would be full of life-changing professional pro tips. I have, at best, two or three of those, and I already used the really good one.

We’re starting our fourth week here at Hood, and the roller coaster of the beginning of the semester is starting to level off a bit. But every new semester brings a new set of challenges, and that goes double at a new school. While things are going ok, I still don’t quite feel like I’ve got my feet under me yet. And that sense of destabilization feels utterly un-professorial.

Stack of Papers

“Stack of Papers” by Jenni C on Flickr, reminiscent of my grading pile, is licensed under CC BY 2.0

It took until my second semester of college before I got an inkling that professors might be actual people. My physics professor at UW-Madison, the impossibly kind Don Cox, started his first lecture by admitting that he always gets a little nervous before the first day of a new course. A well-established full professor still got jittery before teaching an intro physics class he’d taught a thousand times to a lecture hall half-full of 18-year-olds? It was like seeing your kindergarten teacher in the grocery store and realizing she was a person with a life who didn’t just sleep in the pile of nap mats in your classroom.

Glimpses of human frailty like that were few and far between though. Overheard discussions about professors’ problems with classes usually focused on the limitations of the students, which were no fault of the instructor. So when I started teaching in graduate school and got nervous, or made one of hundreds of little mistakes, I didn’t feel like an academic. I felt like a dingbat.

That’s why I’m so thankful to every single person who ever confessed a mishap in the classroom to me over the years. From fellow graduate students facepalming over a massive mistake in lecture to senior faculty admitting to forgetting a proof in the middle of class, your cringiest moments are a great comfort. This is also why I love the mathematical twitter community. Something about that medium seems to encourage every Great and Powerful Oz to permit a glimpse at the man behind the curtain.

All of those voices were a big help last week when I felt like a class wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped. This insecurity about my class was compounded by my choice of teaching method. When you’re lecturing, you can at least pretend like the class is completely under your control, spellbound by your elegant transmission of the truth and beauty of the mathematical content. If you’re lucky, they’ll even laugh at your jokes and increasingly dated (excuse me, vintage) pop culture references.

If you’re like me, that lasts until exam time, when you wonder what the hell these students were doing when you thought they were listening to your beautiful, beautiful words.

In this semester’s linear algebra class, I planned to assign a giant mish-mash of reading guides, in-class activities, MATLAB labs, presentations, and homework assignments, with a few mini-lectures that are as discussion-heavy as I can make them. Once I realized just how much grading and prep this maelstrom of assignments required, I started getting anxious. Then an assignment fell flat. Some mild tech issues followed. My reach had clearly exceeded my grasp, and what’s worse, I knew my students were feeling a bit at-sea too. While some amount of that is unavoidable (and, in my opinion, desirable) in a math class, things were getting unwieldy. I was in dingbat country.

So I reset a little. I turned my several-page-long reading guides – each one graded before each class so I knew what they were having trouble with – into short Blackboard assignments. I’m not getting the same depth of feedback from the students, but I can see at a glance what didn’t make sense from the reading, and they still have an essay question to explain what they want to spend time on in class. I’ve given myself a breather on grading a couple of assignments by making them in-class. If I can see if that they’re participating and doing the assignment, and their discussion tells me they got the point, they get the grade. I decided to spend an extra half a class on some material they’re struggling with, and they seem more comfortable now. I don’t know where I’ll steal that half a class from later, but we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.

Once I catch up on this last stack of grading, I’ll call myself stabilized. And then I’ll pat myself on the back and maybe check twitter before the next mishap starts. To quote @AcademicsSay, “I’m not procrastinating. I’m actively engaging in the disruption of traditional academic narratives via social media.” And I think that’s only half a joke.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Moving Again

I am writing this blog entry from my new apartment. Of course it’s not actually anywhere close to new—one of the great things about Philadelphia is the abundance of historical buildings, and the sign outside the building tells me that famed zoologist and paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope lived here beginning in 1876 (well, I think he was in the two outwardly-identical townhouses next door, but close enough). I’m taking it as a good omen for my career, because he published 1400 papers in his fairly short lifetime. Just waiting for the mojo to start working. But first I get to write a blog. There is nothing I could reasonably talk about this week except moving, because it ate my life and made me cry, as it has pretty much every time I’ve done it. Moving has been an enormous part of my post-PhD experience, as I know it has for lots of other people. I’ve moved (from house to house if not city to city) at least every year since I graduated, many years twice, and I have hated, loathed every single packing, every disassembling of my futon, and every instance of sorting through box after box for the one thing I need when I get there.

Luckily this move was only 5 blocks, and I had help from some great people here. For example, my department chair was kind enough to teach both my classes for me because I had to move on a teaching day (I am so grateful). But I maintain that moving, with whatever level of help, is an enormous challenge. The BBC says it’s not actually the second most stressful thing in life, but it does take over your life in a way that few other things do. After all, how can you do math when all of your notes and books are in boxes and you really, truly have no horizontal surfaces larger than a coffee cup to spread out on? How can you teach when you can’t find anything but your sweaty moving clothes?

This time, my answer to minimizing part of this stress has been to let the move touch as little calendar time as possible. I waited until the last days before to pack up (this could be called procrastination, but I call it a method), and I unpacked everything absolutely as soon as I could. No saving boxes for later, no living out of a suitcase or sleeping on a mattress on the floor. The first priority except teaching was to get the house put away. I started packing on Friday night and worked all weekend (with a couple breaks to watch the last episodes of Twin Peaks). I moved Tuesday and had all my furniture put together before I went to bed, all the boxes empty by Thursday evening. I was exhausted, however, and I have to say that, first priority or not, the teaching suffered anyway because I couldn’t get any sleep in my new (non-air-conditioned) place with no curtains; I was a total zombie teaching my first class on Wednesday. So I don’t know if this blitz method is the best idea after all. Maybe I should have just camped in my office for a week, coming home just to work on the house over the long weekend.  At least it’s over now, regardless of best practices.

One of the things that is different about moving now than when I was younger is that I now have to hire professionals. When I was more settled, in grad school, I had no money but plenty of connections in the community and there were people who were crazy enough to help me move. My parents and my sister would come from Wyoming with a pickup truck. I was into this DIY method and never thought I would hire movers. However, it turns out that you have to know someone pretty well—often more than a year–or pay them a lot to get them to haul your mattress up the stairs. My movers this time were pretty rough, and pretty slow, and so very expensive. Ah, the many ways I miss my folks, free labor being one. The people who were moving into my last apartment as I was moving out were three very nice girls from Long Island, each with a parent helping out for the day. They said, “Oh, you have movers, how nice!” and I couldn’t believe how much I hoped they appreciated their parents. Weird feeling.

In the last few years, I have moved many times because I was changing jobs, with auxiliary moves because there was some problem with my apartment, or to move back in with my parents for a couple months after graduating. This time was different; the reason that I was moving this time is very sad and makes all my complaints really trivial. I feel that I can’t talk about this move without telling you about my dear friend Margarita Metallinou, who was my roommate until her untimely death in early July. She was a post-doctoral scholar in the Biology department at Villanova, a passionate herpetologist and evolutionary biologist, as well as an incredibly lively, intelligent, and beautiful person. She was killed in an accident while doing field work in Zambia. It was shocking, terrible, senseless, and her friends and family are still mourning her loss deeply. I won’t say too much about her here, because it’s still hard to write about and maybe too personal for a blog like this, but I do want to say a one thing about our friendship that might be relevant for other people in early career transitions, making a move to a whole new institution instead of just a new apartment.

Margarita and I met at new faculty orientation at Villanova. I love new faculty orientations desperately, not for any content reason but because that is where I have met almost all non-math friends I have made since I got my PhD. I never would have guessed that it would be so hard to meet new people when I moved to different cities, but I have honestly made only a couple non-academic friends since grad school, and not for lack of leaving the house. It seems that a lot of non-academic people around my age are fairly settled and already have as many friends as they need. Villanova was my third new faculty orientation and I had figured out that these were my people, so I was really paying attention. Margarita and I became friends for many reasons, including that I could tell very quickly that I wanted her for a friend, because she was obviously an extraordinary person. But what gave us an opportunity to actually form that friendship is that we both lived in Center City Philadelphia and took the train to Villanova every day. In my experience, proximity is everything in making friends in a new place. Villanova has a beautiful campus, in an idyllic, expensive suburban community, so very few people who work there (well, few assistant professors or postdocs at least) actually live very close.  That has made it hard to meet up with most people for drinks after work or general friend-making hang outs. It was really lucky that Margarita and I lived about 4 blocks apart, so we got to see each other a lot away from work. We had so many great times that we eventually decided to get a place together this spring.

So yes, I had actually just moved a few months ago, in May. Ugh, I hate to even think about it, so back to my current move: since I couldn’t afford that larger place alone, I had to find a new place to live very quickly and with many other things going on. By moving day I had no memory of the apartment I had seen for 10 minutes and then put a deposit on the month before. Like some other times I have chosen an apartment, I experienced renter’s remorse and anxiety after I paid the deposit. This time it was more extreme than ever before–it seemed like I must have made the wrong choice, and it seemed like a really big deal. But I think that my anxiety was probably about the bigger questions and difficulties in life, and just found expression in my choice of apartment, exactly because it was a choice. I was supposed to have control over that part, and everything felt wrong, so it must have been because I had chosen wrong. I had to remind myself many times that there was not any one right choice, and that I have lived in many far from perfect places and come to love them. Many things were a total surprise when I got here. The freezer was pretty well frosted over (who knew that there still exist freezers that get frosty), but most things worked okay, and after a lot of work unpacking and sorting it is actually looking like a great place. Not perfect, but great.

This move was sad, and frustrating, and very unpleasant, but it was over fast and I’m now really happy in my new place. I just hung a 9 foot blackboard on my bedroom wall. Alone. And I feel like a superhero. With a blackboard like that, can 1400 papers be far behind?

My incredible blackboard. Just the start of the great math hopefully to come from this house.

My incredible blackboard. Just the start of the great math hopefully to come from this house.

Posted in moving | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Plans Are Worthless, But…

I first heard about semester planning when I began my postdoc at the University of the Pacific. I couldn’t even parse the phrase then: one made plans for things that one had some control over, like a vacation, or to a lesser degree, a lesson. A semester was something that happened to you, a force of nature. You might as well try to plan a tornado.

But I kept hearing about these miracle semester plans from the more established faculty, the ones who claimed to leave the office at 5 and not work weekends, who had solid publication records and still looked like they slept on the regular. Meanwhile, every semester of mine followed the same pattern: Start out strong. Work like a maniac for as long as possible until I inevitably fall a bit behind. Then hide from work for a couple of weeks, full of guilt and dread, until I claw myself back out at the end, exhausted. So when the Center for Teaching and Learning announced their next semester planning workshop I thought I’d give it a go. Besides, lunch was provided.

Deceptively simple, courtesy of NCFDD

Deceptively simple steps, courtesy of NCFDD

The process sounded too straightforward: Write down goals for your semester, personal and professional. Write down all the steps needed to achieve those goals. Guess how much time each step would take, and put them on your calendar accordingly. I squinted at these ultra-productive, well-rested faculty members sitting around me singing the praises of this little document, wondering what I was missing. But I worked through the steps, ate my free lunch, and started a new semester.

Example semester goals, courtesy of NCFDD

Sample semester goals, courtesy of NCFDD

I can’t say I achieved all of my goals that first semester, or in any of the subsequent ones to be honest. That third step – time allocation – is a slippery one, and I am still wildly over-confident in my writing efficiency. But I did make some pretty good strides: I was on the market that semester, and I got all my materials together and applications submitted on time (which ultimately scored me my dream job). Research goals were met, though admittedly not the ones that involved actually submitting anything. I started up new projects and got some great results for future papers. And the really incredible thing was that the mid-semester meltdown never came. I was sold.

While I’m sure others have created similar structures elsewhere, the particular semester plan process we used came from the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, of which the University of the Pacific is an institutional member. The center has all their materials for planning accessible for nonmembers, including a ninety minute seminar from Kerry Ann Rockquemore to walk you through creating your first plan.

The first part of the seminar describes my life before planning to a T: getting bogged down in what Kerry Ann calls the “day-to-day, low-level misery” of academic life, working all the time on the tasks that have constant built-in accountability (teaching, service) and ignoring the quieter items that are ultimately more crucial to long-term faculty success (hello, folder of half-done manuscripts).

Sample semester plan, courtesy of NCFDD

Sample semester plan, courtesy of NCFDD

The next part articulates the steps of the plan, and gives you time to write your own. She emphasizes including goals for your personal life, and gives you permission to clear your calendar of research obligations when you’ve got a big grading week. Finally, she lists ways to create accountability for yourself and your plan, something I’ll talk about more in a later post.

As I finalize my plan for this semester, I know that my biggest problem is still being realistic about the amount of time it takes me to write. I always think I can knock something out in a week if I set my mind to it. I also know that I have some pretty big goals (which I am not sharing publicly, due to what I think of as the “Facebook Gym Selfie Effect“), some of which might not get met. But my plan breaks these intimidating goals down into bite-sized, ostensibly achievable tasks. I’ve been meltdown-free for three semesters now, and I don’t see that changing. Even if I do get off track for a week or two, planning gives me the structure to regroup and continue instead of just holding on until the semester ends.

There is one big issue for mathematicians and scientists that gets ignored in these types of planning discussions: what if your research plan turns out to be impossible? I can give myself a week to typeset a proof that I already have scrawled in a notebook. But what about when I spot a mistake that kills the whole proof? Or discover that what I hoped to prove that month was just plain false? All of a sudden the paper that I thought would be out by the end of the semester is dead in the water. I can set firm writing goals for expository work or grant applications, but deadlines for pure research still feel utterly arbitrary. But even if that part of the plan turns out to be worthless, I’ve found planning to be essential to my sanity.

Does anyone else make semester plans? Any tips to offer for the newbie? Tried it and decided it was a waste of time? Let me know in the comments.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments