Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What do you want?

This post title is the third in the series of references I've been leaving all week. I think that I'll stop at the end of this week, partially because lines 6 and 7 are very hard to fashion posts around.

I have a student attending class today from my partner's department who I can't seem to discourage from taking my class. I should point out that my partner and I are in very different fields. We are in departments that don't really have reason to talk to each other.

He claims that there are a lot of students from his department taking my class. Whether or not that's true, it is irrelevant as to why he wants to take my class. His purported reason is that he has to take class A for his degree. He has sat in class A, and finds it too abstract. I suggested to him that he take class X, the prerequisite for my class, and something that can be a plausible prerequisite for class A. He claims that he has had a course by the name of X in the university he has transferred here from. I know the syllabus of class X. I think there is a problem here in the naming scheme. I point out to him that class X covers the necessary material at the appropriate level of abstractness, unlike the class he took, which was more concrete.

He won't budge. My class it is. He has heard that my class teaches abstract thinking. But not just the quarter that I am teaching, which, for reasons I cannot fathom, I know that some people in this student's major choose to take. He wants to take the entire year. He doesn't want to audit, he wants to register. This will ask him to master skills that he has no hope of ever needing, unless he drastically changes direction.

I'm left asking, really sir, what is it that you want out of this year? But, at the end of the day, I believe the student knows better than me what he/she needs, and if not, well, its his/her funeral. I'm wondering how long I'll see this student.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

There is a hole in your mind

Why else would I think that planning an activity at 4am when Epsilon is teething, and therefore not sleeping well consistently (or at all) would be a good idea?

Epsilon was up at midnight, refusing to go back to sleep. We just conducted our planned activity then, on the theory that it is 4 am somewhere.

My partner and I have been making an active effort to suffer through a bit of inconvenience to celebrate holidays in both our backgrounds. Between living in different cities, and not being particularly religious, this has been hard. But we made it work this time... sort of.

Now it's plenty of coffee, and thank god for daycare. Happy holiday for anyone who knows what I'm talking about.

Also, the extra credit remains unclaimed for naming the reference in the last two post titles.

Monday, September 26, 2011

And so it begins...


Today is the first day of classes.

I think my dread for the start of term is more out of a habit formed over 20 years of classes during the term and "freedom" over the summers. This year, I'm actually finding that the greater part of me is looking forward to the start of term. I've have a few terms off teaching (in exchange for more doubling up on other terms) and I've been finding that teaching actually helps keep me organized. I'm actually more productive when I have to schedule my day around the needs of students, their classes, their exams, and regularly orgainized department seminars. Huh, who knew? Not what I would have told you I would react to teaching a few years ago.

In the meanwhile, here's my current open letter to my students:

Dear all,

Just so you know, I don't actually care why you want me to sign your drop card on the first day of classes. You don't have to shuffle your feet, or look down, or come up with a reason. I don't know you. You don't know me. You don't want to take my class. Great. Have a great undergrad career.

I don't actually care if you want to audit my class. If you show up to class regularly, you are one more shining face I can beam at early in the mornings. If you choose not to show up in my class, then I don't know why you are auditing it. If you want your homeworks graded, talk to the grader, and see what he wants to do with you.

If you want to sit in on this class, but you don't have the prerequisites, you don't need to ask my permission. If you follow what's going on, great. If you don't, it's your funeral. It's not going to affect your grade, or my work load, do as you please.

In short, the only form for the registrars' office I want an explanation attached to is a course conflict form. And when form is for a conflict with the course that my class is a prereq. for... well, I'm just confused.

Yours truly,
Your Instructor

And on that note, 5 points of extra credit if you know what science fiction series is referenced in the title of this post.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

When science fiction comes knocking

My partner and I have been bantering back and forth on this bit of news from CERN for the last hour or so. Really? FTL neutrinos? That would be ... well. Now that I try to write it down, I don't know the word for it. Cool? Scary? More science fictiony than I'd like the world to be? A restoration of a sense of symmetry that I've always craved to have about the universe, that my inner scientist has squashed for logical reasons?

My partner and I have resorted to glib silliness as we wait for the experts from other particle accelerators to weigh in. He thinks it's an artifact of instrument errors coinciding and amplifying to produce an outcome many many standard deviations out. I think someone forgot to divide by 2.

If true, the implications are just... too wild for this to be true. I'm holding my breath. Not to find out if this is true, but because I'm curious how this happened.

Update: Randall Monroe does it again. This had me laughing out loud.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Two thoughts

1) One of my summer students was complaining about the difficulty she was having fitting a class into her schedule that would allow her to keep working with me during the term. The crux of the problem is a course conflict with  a humanities breadth requirement. She could fill out the paperwork for a course conflict, but she wants to attend all the humanities lectures because humanities classes are hard for her, and she is afraid that if she doesn't attend lectures, she won't do well in the class. While I feel for her predicament, a little voice inside me is gleefully chanting "English is hard, lets do science!"

2) When applying for jobs, especially at state universities, I tend to be conscientious about filling in the form from  HR about diversity. I approve of universities trying to increase the diversity of its applicant pool, and full disclosure on a piece of paper that no one in my prospective department will see is an easy way to support them. Race, fine. Gender, fine. Marital status, ehn? Well, its a different country, privacy norms are different. Sexual orientation, WTF? Um, get out of my bedroom please?

I answered it. The options were fairly comprehensive. I wonder if this means that the university is more serious about dealing with LGBT issues than others. I'll keep you posted if I get the job.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Lectures and firewalls

I taught a class a while back that was videotaped by the university. The purpose of this exercise, as stated by the university, was to allow my students to refer back to the lectures as a resource, as well as their notes, homeworks, handouts, etc.

In actuality I think it encouraged students not to show up to a 9am lecture, but on the other hand provided a useful tool for me to improve my teaching, as I could suddenly see what I looked like to the students. None of this is surprising.

What surprises me are the 2-3 e-mails/year I get from students at other universities who stumble across my lectures on-line and want to know if they can have access to them. The videos can be accessed with a university username and password. I have unfortunately signed away copyright rights to the videos and I do not think I can do anything to help these students. (My own notes for those lectures, even if that would be a resource they would be interested in are in a scrawl that I would be embarrassed to give to anyone else as a reference.)

It disturbs me to have my lectures behind a firewall like this. I wish my university had a system closer to MIT's open courseware. I think next time I am given an opportunity to have my lectures recorded, I will try to do so in a more open environment.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Eggmus: Toilet training

Epsilon is progressing nicely down the toilet training checklist. Legs apart, lean forward, concentrate, flow.

Epsilon is fascinated by what body parts various things do and don't have. Trucks don't have feet, and thus don't need shoes. His dog has a tail, he doesn't (though he has to check every time he is asked).

While playing with the faucet in bathtub the other day, he tells his father that he has found the tub's penis.

Friday, September 16, 2011


One of the measures my university has taken to tackle the issue of mental health problems among the student body is to set up an administrative position to advocate for students when they feel they cannot (for whatever reason) engage faculty on academic issues.

Usually this means that the administrator verifies illnesses or deaths in the family, etc. for a professor, or explains that they have been working with the student to come up with a plan to catch up on work in classes that they have fallen behind on. Although occasionally they intervene in a case of unprofessional conduct on the part of a TA, RA or professor. This system assumes that the vast majority of student body will not try to abuse the system to get out of doing work. Given the particulars of the student body I am lucky enough to work with, this system works here. It would not in other universities I've been at.

Suicide rates, drug use, depression and other mental health issues are a serious problem on this campus, and as faculty, we are encouraged to be aware of these issues, and keep an eye out for possible symptoms. As an individual who has personally wrestled with these problems, I am sensitive (possibly overly) to the plight of a student at a competitive school struggling with mental health issues.

I recently had a student come talk to me about having a hard time during the term. When he didn't turn in his final exam, the administrator asked me if I'd be willing to grant him an extension for it. Because of words said and unsaid, I assumed that this student needed an extension for mental health reasons. I gave a counteroffer to the administrator that was more generous than it needed to be. Time passed. The student missed the deadline, this time without contacting me. The administrator notified me of physical health issues. I set a new deadline. Time passed. The registrar asked me if I had a grade for the student, given that the second deadline had come and gone. I had neither seen nor heard anything from the student and gave him a grade based on previous work.

.... And I hear from the student asking for another extension.

I understand having a hard time in college. I understand being intimidated by professors. I want to be as lenient as is helpful. But I don't want to be the softie who allows a system set up to help students get over a rough patch be abused. I am disappointed in myself for my actions, and disappointed in the student for his. But I don't know how I'll act next time.

Other disabilities and illnesses have clearly defined policies and expectations for the student and professors to maneuver in. I've taught students with ADHD and MS who get 1.5 time on exams. I've had note takers accompany students with vision or hearing difficulties into the classroom. I've known friends with chronic physical illnesses have their doctors regularly contact professors for appropriate extensions whenever the illness acted up. I'm not saying that these concessions are enough to level the playing field for the students. But they give professors something to work with.

Mental health seems to be different. Insurance often doesn't cover treatment for mental illness well. There is a much greater stigma attached to admitting that one has a drug problem than to admitting that one has Chrohn's disease. As a result, even at a university that tries to be aware of students' mental health needs, those suffering come up with ad hoc solutions to the problem. And as a professor who wants to help, I have no idea what to do.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The importance of having a plan B

This is not about birth control. I've spent the day editing my research statement. This is about my job hunt.

Over the last several weeks I've been trying to put my finger on why this job hunt feels a lot more high stakes than the last one. Well, okay, there are the obvious facts:
  1. Epsilon
  2. Single city restriction
  3. The reality of the world wide depression hadn't fully sunk into the budgetary conciousness of a lot of universities last time around.
But I think it's more than that. Last time, during my bleaker moments, I would run around the house doing dishes singing "I don't need a job. Not a jobby jobby jo-ob!" I don't mean to say that I was up beat and hopeful during the process, there was plenty of insecurity and nail biting going  around, but I was coping.

I think a key part of that had to do with the fact that I had a "plan B." At that point in my life, I was spending a significant portion of my week working with highschool drop outs who wanted to get their GEDs. I felt confident that if I couldn't find an academic position, I'd be able to get an emergency certification and teach highschool, and possibly be enough of a disciplinarian in that setting to make a difference in some students' lives.

I don't have the certainty now. Whether it is because I have not been able to spend the time these last 2 years developing those skills/making those contacts, or because I've fallen more deeply in love with my research and don't want to leave it, or because I don't know what teaching would look like in country X (where my partner has a job) I don't have a plan B.

So, if you would care to share, those of you who have left your country to find a job, or who have trailed their spouses to a foreign country, how did you cope with the terror of possibly "not making it" in your newly adopted home? Was it scary for you, or was it a grand adventure, or somewhere in the middle?Did you have a "plan B"?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Out from under my rock

I seem to have disappeared under a rock for the last 5 or so weeks. There's been a lot going on with visitors, and summer research sessions finishing up, several illnesses making their rounds through the family... But primarily its been a paralysis at the prospect of the new job hunt. I'm slowly putting things back on my plate, this blog being one of them.

I've made several references to my 2+ epsilon body problem getting worse before it gets better, but I don't believe I've elaborated a lot on this blog. My partner has a tenure track position at Department 1 in School A in a foreign country, country X. It is in a major city, so there are many other universities where I can try to find a job in the greater metro area. My partner was able to defer his job for a few months, and will start in January. Due to visa laws, he will be able to be back in the US for 11 weeks at a time. The distance, expense and logistics probably means that there will only be one long visit before the start of the 2012-2013 academic year, though my partner is more ambitious.

This year marks 4 consecutive years of one of us being on the job market, which is exhausting. Watching my partner (recognized in the small circle of academics who are interested in his work as a very strong candidate) struggle to find a job anywhere in the US for two years, and finally get a position abroad does not make me feel confident about general prospects on the job market if I am to restrict myself to only one city. We have no commitment from School A for a possible position for me. My department, Department 2 at School A is not particularly strong in research, and has no one doing anything remotely related to what I do, only vague words about helping me identify possibly interesting jobs in the area. We have no idea what this actually translates to.

The next few days will probably consist of posts about my various thoughts on the job hunt process, and some more anonymised specifics of my situation, and thoughts about the possible emmigration. There will also be more Eggmus coming up to cut the seriousness.