Friday, October 31, 2008

Fine... I guess

Well, the class went fine. No one was obviously sleeping and the students actually seemed to be paying attention. 40 is not a bad number of students to start with - at least you can make eye contact with them all and try and keep them engaged. One of the students asked me afterwards which other classes I was teaching, but it wasn't clear if it was because she liked my teaching style or if she was going to cut those classes out of her course catalog and light them on fire as she fed them into a shredder. I guess I will know next semester, when I have a class of my own. 
 Since it is Halloween I was able to make a joke about the fact that I was going to dress up like their regular teacher, but that Iparty was out of Jesus wigs, foiling my plot. That seemed to go over well and they seemed to like that I printed out a couple of key slides and those that were a bit text-heavy so they didn't have to write everything down as students are often programed to. Overall, I think it was good, but I have no way of really knowing. 

The digital age

 This morning a colleague called me out of my office to witness a yearly ritual for the first-year class. On the class day closest to, or on, Halloween, the professor who teaches the course has a bunch of grad students carry him into the classroom in a coffin. Complete with musical accompaniment, he dramatically exits the coffin to teach the class about a blood-related topic in full vampire get-up and "Transylvanian" accent. It might be the only way you can have 200 18-year-olds all paying attention in a classroom at the same time.
 However, the scariest part of the whole thing had nothing to do with the paisley socks the professor was wearing under his cape, but the fact that probably half of the students immediately pulled out their phones to record his performance. Are you shitting me? 

Test-driving an old car

I'm looking forward to my first interaction with a class of undergrads for quite a while. I did not do any teaching as a post-doc, and since there are almost no training opportunities for perspective faculty members to improve their teaching unless they convince a department to let them teach all or part of a class at the expense of their real reason they are getting paid (research), I don't have a lot of experience teaching outside of TAing as a grad student. I took a few touchy-feely educations courses as a grad student and a three day teaching workshop when I got here, but does that really prepare you for standing in front of a room of 19 year olds and convincing them that what you are explaining is actually interesting to them? No. So, today will be a good test drive for me. The lecture is on a topic that I know well, so I put the slides together yesterday (well, mostly. I still have to finish it) and we'll see how it goes. Can I slow it down so that they can the main concepts? It is not like a lecture to your peers, which is what I have been doing for the last 10 years, but a completely different kind of presentation. Will they walk out feeling overwhelmed or like they got what I was telling them? Can I hold their attention or will half the class be texting their friends after 20 minutes? I guess I will know in a couple of hours....

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Buried treasure

I think the lack of sleep is getting to me. On my way into the building today I stopped and watched a squirrel for a good five minutes. What I found both fascinating and sad was that the squirrel was caching an acorn in the middle of the construction site near our building. It wasn't so much that I knew his little stash would be either ripped out of the ground or buried by the time that spring came, but rather the care with which the squirrel excavated a hole, placed the acorn in and buried it. It took more than half the time it expended on the procedure to conceal the treasure by carefully patting down all the sign of disturbance so that it blended in with its surroundings. The squirrel was meticulous about this, furiously using its little paws to shape the dirt, all the while eyeing me with rodent suspicion... which, of course, was nothing compared to the suspicious looks that the few students coming in at that hour were giving me as a stared at the little beast through a chain-link fence. No doubt they will be in the class I am teaching tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The night life

Ugh. I spent nearly all of last night checking the clock to see how little sleep I was getting. For no particular reason at all I could not stop thinking last night and pretty much stayed up until and 4:30am, at which point I dozed until our "alarm" woke up at 6:00 and needed to be fed and changed. I wish I could say that I was solving a great mystery, like how to understand the conservative right in this country, or doing something more useful than letting my mind wander through various topics and occasionally attempting to "concentrate" on getting to sleep. It doesn't help that I am trying to get over a cold that laid me up on Sunday and Monday, but it should make putting together a coherent lecture for Friday all the more interesting. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Little by little

Being the newest faculty member of the department has it's pluses and minuses. Generally you get protected from a lot of things if your Chair wants you to hit the ground running. I negotiated to be free of teaching the first semester and I have been given the freedom of teaching an advanced seminar course in the spring, which will be considerably less work than creating a full course. My Chair has so far shielded me from being put on (most) committees, having to advise undergrads and a lot of the general busy work that I will eventually become acquainted with. On the flip side, everyone wants you in for lectures because you are new. I already have two seminars scheduled at other universities and gave another earlier this semester. In addition to that, the other faculty in the department know that you don't have any teaching responsibilities at the moment and are not shy about looking for "guest lectures" for their classes on topics close to my research. I don't have a problem with this, since it will give me a bit of a feel for the students here before I have to teach my own course, but I was just asked on Saturday to give a 50 minute lecture this Friday. Again, not something I mind doing, but another obligation heaped on top of the pile and another example of how free time just doesn't exist. I do realize that there is a time to say "no" to things when you have to make your own work a priority, but all too often it is an accumulation of little things that add up, rather than one big thing that takes up your time. I guess taking a few minutes here and there to write entries to this blog would also apply, but whose counting?


It was only a week and a half ago that I was reveling in the fact that I had not been asked to review anything for quite some time. Oh, how the karma gods looked unkindly on that! I received a last-minute review request from a program officer at NSF two Fridays ago, which I agreed to do only to find out they wanted it back the following Monday. Of course, I already had plans for the weekend so it ended up being a day late, but they were fine with that. What was funny (not ha-ha, the eye-pecking bird kind) was that I got a review request from Science not 5 minutes after I agreed to the NSF one. I didn’t really feel like I could turn down Science, so I jumped on that one too. Now, in the last week, I have gotten three more review requests. Luckily I was able to turn one away because of massive conflict of interest, but this is the kind of thing that happens as soon as you think you have a few minutes to think about research.

But, one thing that really struck me while doing the Science review was that it is hard to be totally objective with papers at that level. You are asked to evaluate whether the manuscript is “Science material”, which is completely subjective. If the paper is in your field then you might find it more interesting than most would, or you may want to increase the readership of papers related to your work, which might benefit you do the road. Even if I am not submitting a paper to Science or Nature later on, it still looks good to have a bunch of high-impact papers in your citation list. At the same time, it can be hard to evaluate the novelty of a study on something you are very familiar with in the way that someone outside the field might see it. I think we are all subject to these biases, whether we acknowledge them or not. Added to this is the possibility of writing a “perspective” (in the case of Science). If the paper is published and editors like your comments, they may ask you to do a summary paper with your own insights into the field added, which is a nice bonus on the CV. So, if the paper is something that has a shot, in many ways it is to the advantage of a reviewer to advocate for it. Is this a good thing? I don’t know.  

Friday, October 24, 2008

Does this job make my ass look big?

I swear it is more predictable than the freshman 15, let's call it the new prof 10. It doesn't have the same ring as it's undergraduate counter-part, but it is no less of a force. I am referring to the fact that sitting at your desk all day long trying to keep up with the daily tasks is not very good for the waistline. When I was a post-doc I had the time to make it to the gym and go for long walks, but since making the move I get in around 7:30, leave around 5:30 (on a good day) and eat lunch at my desk. If I get outside at all during the day it is a little bit of a victory, unless I am running to get signatures on something because I am too close to a deadline to risk campus mail. 

I had a physical yesterday so I could jump the administrative hoops for a part of my research and got the news that I am less than svelte these days, so I will be making a plan starting next week to get my tubby ass back to the gym. My theory is that if I schedule it in I will work everything else around it, but we'll see how that goes. I predict poorly, but we'll see. 

Space Wars

One of the biggest issues in any department is the amount of space. No matter where you are there are always complaints about people feeling cramped in the space they have. An attractive part of this position was that the department would be moving into a new building before the end of my first year, especially since the building I am currently in is more depressing than "Requiem for a Dream". Well, that process is fully underway and we have begun to carve up space in the new building between ourselves and members of two other departments. As you might expect, everyone wants a space larger than what they currently occupy and new faculty, such as myself, are stuck trying to predict what they will need a few years down the road. When you have been at this for only a couple of months, that is not so easy, nor is it simple to defend your space needs when your lab is not up to capacity. By the time we occupy the new building I will have two graduate students working in the lab, but ideally I would like to have 4-6 students and two post-docs in there once I begin to bring some grants in. The trick is holding onto space that you can grow into before you have the personnel to fill it.

Complicating the matter is the design of the space. At it's conception, the building plan was adapted from some Ivy League school around the concept of shared space. So, each floor has 6 faculty members and 4 lab suites. For people who have run an independent lab for years, this is a major change and has made the process of allocating space a bit more difficult. I am lucky in that I have a colleague moving into the building with whom I share a number of techniques and a similar work-flow plan (i.e. we assign spaces to tasks rather than personal bench spaces). My department has actually been very supportive during the negotiations over who gets what space and I made out fairly well while several of my more senior colleagues are reducing their lab space considerably to make some space for the junior faculty. I was pleasantly surprised by this, because that is NOT how it is happening on some of the other floors being occupied by other departments. 

In fact, one of the other departments has already tried to "suggest" that my colleague and I move to another floor (and occupy half the space we are currently assigned) so that one of their big dogs can take our space. The issue is more that they want to get an enormous ego off their floor and make him someone else's problem, but that isn't the most convincing argument for moving to a smaller space from where I sit. I don't think it has any chance of happening, but I am glad to be in the department I am in and not in one where I would be pressured into that kind of move. 

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Feeling slow? You're not alone.

This recent essay should at least give you some confidence if you spend a lot of your time feeling like you have too many shortcomings for sceince.

And so it begins...

I am not sure what is motivating me to do this, but perhaps I need a place to express everything that is going on as a new faculty member and this seems like a good place to do it. I am also justifying it in my own head as a productive form of procrastination, unlike many of the less-productive activities I have used for such purpose in the past. I am choosing to do this anonymously because I want to be able to be honest about things and not have to pull any punch for fear of saying some that might turn out to be politically unwise at my university. Also, I have never been comfortable with self-praise, so when good things happen I would like to be able to express that as well, rather than downplaying my excitement. Call it academic therapy. In any case...

A bit of history. I started this job in August 2008, after 4 years of a post-doc and 5 years of grad school in places distant from here. Fortunately for me, I have managed to land a good job in a place close to where my partner and I grew up. The job market at the moment is not great, so the fact that we are close to our respective parents has worked out particularly well for us, especially since we have a child who is less than a year old. 

Starting a faculty job has been by far the most difficult professional change I have gone through. Moving your life and family to a new place is bad enough, especially with a small child, but it is the different expectations of running a lab, compared with working in one, that have made it a challenge. Suddenly, the lab "buck" stops with you. All the administrative tasks have to be done. There are committees to be dealt with and grants to be written. I am now worrying about getting people into the lab (how many can I afford? How do I recruit/decide? What types of people should I bring in?) and which types of equipment to buy. I am an accountant, a manager, a mentor, a mentee, a writer, a trainer and the "new guy". I am figuring out how the university runs at multiple levels while trying to get my research off the ground. And I don't even have to teach this semester! That's a whole other worry for a few months down the road, but I have had to design the new course and advertise it. Luckily, I am breaking into that slowly with an advanced seminar course, rather than being thrown to the freshmen (read: wolves).

I have enjoyed it so far, but balancing everything at work, let alone at home, has made the past few months interesting. I figured that keeping some type of record of this time in my life would provide humor in the future and if someone else stumbles on this who is or will be in the same position not too far down the road, maybe we can commiserate together.