Archive for the ‘academia’ Category

Earlier this week, my cousin who’s a senior in high school posted on Facebook that s/he had been accepted to an Excellent University in another state.  A comment from one of my cousin’s Facebook friends caught my attention.  “Excellent U must have a special degree program for you to want to go so far away!  What will your degree be in?”  Cousin replied that s/he doesn’t have a major yet, it’s just a great university in a state where s/he has always wanted to live.

Those contrasting attitudes about university geography interested me.  As a high school student, I always assumed I would “go away” to college.  College was when you got to have the experience of living in a new place, duh!  But many of my classmates had always assumed they would attend school in state.  Why pay out-of-state or private-school tuition when you could stay close to your family in the awesome state of Colorado, duh!

I continue to be interested in the “going away to college” culture because it’s struck me as one of the biggest differences between university in Canada and in the US. The impression I’ve gotten from talking to Canadian adults is that in Canada, the culture of staying local is much stronger than the culture of going away to college.  (Canadians, please correct me if I’m wrong.)

So I’m curious: when you applied to college, what was your attitude towards “going away” to school?  Did you assume you’d stay local unless there was a special degree program you couldn’t get close to home?  Did you think that college was a time to get away and apply to schools regardless of distance?  Or did you fall in between these extremes, applying to a mix of in-state and out-of-state schools?  Obviously, cost is going to be a big factor in these decisions, so my bonus question for those comfortable sharing is: what role did finances play in your decision to attend in-state or out-of-state schools?

I’ll start us off.  I applied only to schools out-of-state — I assumed that was what college was for and my parents endorsed my plan.  In retrospect we were all quite naive about the financing.  We assumed there would be some loans involved, but we didn’t quite understand how many loans.  I also didn’t anticipate that my favorite school might not be the one to offer me the best financial aid package.  As it turned out, my top choice offered me a buttload of loans while a school slightly lower on my list offered me an incredible scholarship.  I tearfully sent in the “no thanks” card to my dream school and took the scholarship.  I have never, ever regretted it.  (Bless you, Generous Donors at PC’s Alma Mater.)


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I have a job. In Boston. Coincidentally, my husband happens to live in Boston. Isn’t that strange? I hear lots of married people live together, though, so I’m sure we can make it work.

The job is a one-year research fellowship, which will give me just the amount of time I need to finish a book manuscript I can be really proud of.

Where will I go after that? I’m not sure. I think I will give the academic market one more try, but this past year made me realize that I can and will be happy if I end up pursuing a non-professorial career. The future feels more hopeful and more open than it has in a while.

So hang in there, Trader Joe’s fans: I’ll be shopping for wine there again before we know it!! (I miss you, Archeo Nero d’Avola …)

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Earlier this week I was called upon to put together a “business casual” outfit for a not-entirely-stress-free event.  Despite the fact that I am now 30 years old, I found this a surprisingly difficult task.  My wardrobe is in a sorry state — I have one presentable sweater, most of my blazers are cheap and ill-fitting, and I really do need to get my new pair of charcoal pants hemmed before I can wear them in public.

Furthermore, working at my current university has drastically skewed my sense of the appropriate when it comes to work-wear.  Here is a list of things I have seen actual human adults (not undergrads) at my university wear to seminars, teaching meetings, and other events that take place in public:

  • A spaghetti-strapped tank top with no bra (age of wearer: 55ish)
  • Jeans and a t-shirt from a 70s metal band
  • A midriff-baring top (which, in the wearer’s defense, did not appear to be *designed* as a midriff-baring top — it was simply too short to cover the full torso of its wearer)
  • A sweater stretched so thin you could read the label on the wearer’s undergarments
  • Yoga pants
  • Skintight bike shorts
  • A t-shirt with quarter-sized holes in it

I am far from a fashion plate, but I’m pretty sure that outside of academia one’s work apparel is expected to be free of visible holes and should probably be no more than 5% Spandex.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen someone wear at your place of work?

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Protected: The doorstop of defiance

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Did anyone else read this article and the follow-up in the New York Times about a professor who allegedly told a student with a stutter not to ask or answer questions in class?

I hope it goes without saying that I don’t think it’s ever OK to tell a student s/he can’t contribute in class because of a speech impediment. But at the end of the article, and especially after reading the follow-up, I’m not sure that was what actually happened. I suspect, instead, this professor was facing a common teaching conundrum: What do you do with a bright and enthusiastic student whose very enthusiasm is derailing your course?

In every course I’ve TA’d or taught, and in many of the ones I took as an undergraduate, there was a Classroom Chatterbox. A CC is not simply a frequent classroom contributor.  A CC is a student who treats the class like a personal conversation between themselves and the professor, seeming blissfully unaware that there are 10 or 20 or 140 other students in the course who might also like to ask some questions or participate in the discussion or just get on with the lecture already.

As a professor, it’s often a nice ego boost to have a CC in your classroom.  They’re enthusiastic about the course material!  And they’re actually listening to you!  The problem with CCs is that they tend to lead the class onto unproductive tangets or limit other students’ ability to participate.

Here are a couple of examples from my own experience.  In one of my classes, I had a philosophy-major CC who frequently wanted to turn our discussions about the course readings into a debate about the nature of truth.  I didn’t want to discourage the student’s genuine intellectual passion, but epistemological issues weren’t relevant to the assignments or the course goals, and the other students were clearly not interested in discussing those issues.  I also had a situation where a CC spoke so often and at such length that the other students could barely get a word in edgewise.  This was a discussion section that I was supposed to grade on participation and I felt like I was putting my other students at a disadvantage every time I called on my CC.

If this was the type of situation this adjunct was facing, and her actions were a response to an unmanageable number of questions and not to the stutter, I’m much more sympathetic.  Personally, however, I don’t think that e-mailing a CC to tell them not to talk anymore is a good way to deal with the situation, even if you suggest they write down their questions instead.  Here’s how I have tried to work with my CCs.


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Waiting for rejection

Dear Search Committees:

Back in the day, when I was yet a mere babe in her first year on the job market, I put together a suggested checklist for rejecting academic job applications.  Just think — a rejection letter that included useful information on the search and/or weaknesses in the candidate’s application!  Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Well, I am now older and wiser and in my second year on the job market and I’ve given up that fantasy.  Now all I want is official notification that I have, in fact, been rejected.

Academic search committees are often less-than-prompt in notifying rejected candidates that their applications didn’t make the cut.  It’s not uncommon to receive an official rejection letter a year after the application deadline.  One infamous department in my subfield doesn’t communicate with rejected candidates at all, even rejected candidates who made it to the interview stage.

Some of this reticence is almost certainly about departments hedging their bets until they actually hire someone.  Why reject any candidates until you have your bird in the hand?

But let’s be honest, Search Committees: this is a terrible market for job seekers. Unless you’re from one of those weird religious non-accredited schools that makes its faculty members wear long sleeves at all times, you’re probably up to your neck in applications from qualified candidates.  If an applicant doesn’t make your initial “extra materials” or “conference interview” cut, you’re not going to hire him/her.  So after you notify your short list, why not send a quick e-mail to the non-short-listed candidates to let them know they didn’t make the cut and they should move on to other opportunities?  I’ve even got a suggested template right here!

Dear Candidate,

Thank you for applying for our [tenure-track/postdoctoral] position in [X field]. We received a large number of applications from highly qualified candidates and selecting our finalists from this distinguished group was a difficult process.  We have now chosen our finalists for the position and we regret to say that we have decided not to pursue your candidacy further.  We thank you for the time you invested in applying for our position and we wish you the best of luck in the future.

Sincerely, The Search Committee

Feel free to copy-and-paste the above paragraph into an e-mail window.  Fill in the brackets, put the candidates’ e-mail addresses in the “BCC” field (this is the hard part), and hit “Send.”  You’re done!  And, as a bonus, you’ve now earned a reputation as a humane, classy department that treats job candidates with respect and consideration for their time.

In all seriousness, I know how busy professors and department administrators are, and I realize that the reason rejection letters tend to go out in June of the following year is that they’re not a priority for anyone in the department.  But I can’t tell you how much I’ve appreciated the few prompt rejection letters and e-mails I’ve received (yes, even the one that wished me the best of luck “in [my] quest t5o secure an academic position”).  Is it really so unreasonable to spend ten minutes sending an e-mail to candidates who may have spent days working on the application for your position?  Trust me: we won’t mind that it’s not on University letterhead or personally addressed to us.  We just want to know what’s going on with our application so we can plan accordingly.

Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to receiving your rejection letter.

Best, Petite Chablis

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The e-mail project

As a graduate student, I didn’t get much e-mail.  Oh, I got the four zillion announcements about on-campus events that I didn’t care about.  But e-mails addressed specifically to me, that needed my response?  I got maybe one of those a day.  So checking my e-mail wasn’t terribly disruptive to my work schedule.  I’d usually just delete the incessant campus activities spam and then go back to whatever I was doing.

But now I’m teaching and those days of minimalist e-mail are now gone — especially if my students have an assignment due.  Checking my e-mail has become a much more time- and mental-energy-consuming task because so many of the messages *are* addressed to me and *do* need a response.  And I’ve discovered that if I answer e-mail too quickly, it doesn’t just cross the “respond to e-mail” task off my list, because people write back with more questions.  If I’m too responsive my students start relying on me to be available by e-mail 24/7 and they stop trying to answer questions for themselves.  It also eats into my research and writing time and becomes an insidiously destructive method of procrastination.

So last week I resolved to be more disciplined about my e-mail schedule.  My goal: Respond to course-related e-mail once in the morning, once in the late afternoon, and (if necessary and only if there’s something especially pressing) once before going to bed in the evening.

How did I do?  Let’s take a look.

Monday: Answer morning e-mail. Teaching followed by impromptu office hours eats up the rest of my day. I don’t even glance at my e-mail again until 4pm.
Grade: A (somewhat by default)

Tuesday: Answer morning e-mails. I hold out until noon when I see an easily answerable e-mail pop up from one of my TAs. I answer it. Otherwise, I hold out until the afternoon session.
Grade: B

Wednesday: Complete fail. A barrage of student e-mails, combined with the rather boring research task I set myself for the day, lead me to constantly check and respond to my e-mail from morning until midnight. Bad Petite Chablis.
Grade: F-

Thursday: Much better discipline. I answer morning e-mails. More e-mails pop up from my students and I read them (which I shouldn’t), but I force myself to not compose answers until after 4.
Grade: B+

Friday: Another victory by default.  A workshop takes up my entire day.
Grade: A

Saturday: Shockingly, no course-related e-mails!
Grade: N/A

Sunday: Again, shockingly, no course-related e-mails!
Grade: N/A

Verdict:  Although I’ve had less than perfect follow-through, the e-mail project overall has been a success in terms of helping me keep down the amount of time I spend answering e-mail.  So I’m going to try and keep up with it for the rest of the academic year.

Has anyone else had to work to tame the e-mail beast?

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