Happy Mother’s Day

I am not, myself, a mother. Nor am I a father. So I have no personal grounds to make any comments about the nature of parenthood within an academic structure. No endearing little stories, no heartwarming tales of family life.

In fact, I almost posted the book’s entry on children as today’s excerpt of the day. But once I looked at it, I decided it was too much of a buzzkill for the Mother’s Day holiday. So instead, youngsters, I’d like to encourage you to leave the room while I talk to your parents, those loving chairs and deans and provosts who provide you with shelter and sustenance.

<are they gone?>

Okay, listen. You’ve just hired a bunch of people in their early 30s. It’s the first decent job they’ve ever had, after years of living on leftover pizza and whatever they could take from the buffets at conferences. They’re paying for student loans, they’re maybe buying a house, they’re trading in the ’98 Corolla for something reliable. And god bless ’em, some of them are going to have babies. It’s the American Dream.

So you need to knock it the hell off with your snarky comments about “self-inflicted time management problems” and “the mommy track” and “engaged in an alternative field of productivity.” These people you’ve hired are people, not just scholars. They have lives outside the manicured lawns of your hallowed grounds—and they deserve lives that are bigger than their jobs. Our grandparents went on strike to get 40-hour weeks, they took nightsticks across the shoulders to have weekends. Contrary to what Productive! magazine proclaims, “work-life balance” is not a matter of individual struggle, but rather of collective responsibility.

I don’t care that your P&T guidelines indicate that assistant professors are expected to serve on three committees a year. Maybe you need fewer committees instead of more artificial burdens.

As I said in today’s preface, I don’t have kids. So that also means that I oughtn’t to be the person who tries to invent solutions that will help people with kids. That would be one of the subentries under the dictionary definition of “paternalism.” Maybe, instead, I should ask people with kids what would make their lives more manageable, and then try to make those resources and strategies possible.

And yes, Productive! magazine has an exclamation point in its title. And five women featured on the covers of its 33 online editions.


Cycles of the Day

I’m old enough to remember (I start a lot of sentences that way now…) when computers were something of a novelty, when the bowling alley I worked in started installing arcade games like Asteroids and Missile Command and Centipede. But there were low-tech versions as well, and one of them was a free “app,” we’d call it now, that calculated your biorhythms.

What are biorhythms? Oh, children, you might as well ask me who Tom Selleck or Cybill Shepherd were, you pain me so greatly with your youth…

Biorhythms were a 1970s pop-psych version of astrology, basically, in which the moment of your birth launched a series of sine waves endlessly rolling from +1 to –1 but on different periods. Your Intellectual rhythm was a 33-day cycle; your emotional rhythm was a 28-day cycle; and your physical rhythm was a 23-day cycle. So, harnessing the power of the computer for trivia as we so often do, you could put in your date of birth, and the computer would calculate your cycles for the coming month, pointing out auspicious days during which all three sine waves would be in positive territory, warning of simultaneous troughs.

I am not a believer in biorhythms, but I have found that I have daily rhythms. My intellectual and emotional state is higher in the morning, my physical and emotional state is higher in the afternoon, and my intellectual state stands alone in the evening.

What does this imply for my working life? That in the morning, I have creative gumption. I can do things that are focused and risky, like teach and send out applications and contact literary agents. In the afternoon, I have physical gumption—time to do chores, to work in the woodshed, to sit through yet another meeting, things that don’t require a lot of creativity. And in the evening, I can do things that are focused and private—I can write, I can read.

I knew, back when I was writing my dissertation, that I wasn’t going to be able to come home and write in the evening if I’d had an intellectually demanding day ahead of it. So I got a job selling furniture, which I could leave behind at 6PM and be able to write for five or six hours after dinner. And I’ve learned to never teach a class between 12:30 and 2:30 in the afternoon. I have NEVER had a good class in the early afternoon, as a student or a teacher. I’m awesome before lunch, though.

You too should study your daily cycles, to understand what times of day work best for the various aspects of your life. Try to defend those times when your work comes most readily to hand, and schedule meetings during the slop time when you’re no good for thinking. The subcommittee on website revisions does not deserve your best resources.

Spotted in the wild…

I have my copies of the book here at home in Vermont, but empirically, they’re the only ones I know actually exist. I’ve heard a rumor that there’s one in England, but I haven’t had visual corroboration.

Until yesterday. There’s been a confirmed sighting in the Great Lakes region…

Photo in the wild Midwest

And another sighting in New England…

Photo in the wild New England

The books weren’t outfitted with GPS transponders, so we’re relying on field spotters. If you have visual evidence of the book’s location, send it along and I’ll add it as it arrives.

Words When You Can’t Sleep

You know that wonderful, lingering state just before you fall fully asleep, when you’re just roaming back and forth between awareness and bliss, and the dreams are showing you their previews? I had that last night. And sometimes when I have that, it emerges in sounds and words.

The word of the night was beige-a vu, that state of feeling like every day trapped in your corporate cube is exactly the same as all of the other days you’ve seen…

There’s a lot of talk about “alt-careers,” which is good because most people with PhDs will have one. But one of the things we don’t talk about is how those careers start. See, the really, really strange thing about higher education is that we constantly want you to do things you don’t know how to do.

You did good in that class? Good, here’s a harder class.

You passed your comps? Good, now write a dissertation proposal.

You defended your dissertation? Good, now create three new courses from scratch and staff your lab and learn all about faculty governance.

The experience of “entry level” in almost every profession is that you get a week of frantic learning before you do exactly the same thing exactly the same way until you go mad. Architecture has “CAD monkeys” and computing has “code monkeys,” jobs where you come in at 8 and go home at 7 and the work comes to you and you do it. The corporate world depends on speed and reliability, which means they don’t try too hard for novelty. Comcast does the same thing day after day, and they get rich doing it.

The experience of “entry-level” in academia is perpetually that first period of frantic learning, if you’re doing it right. You’re always encountering new ideas and new edges of knowledge; always revising courses to take on recent developments, reading the latest publications in your field (and adjacent to it); always taking on new roles in the governance of your department, your program, your professional society. If you’re lucky and stay in academic life, you’ll be immersed in novelty and confusion and uncertainty every day of your career. It’s exhilarating and exhausting and wonderful.

You can make it into beige-a vu if you want, and we all know too many faculty who have. But a university faculty is one of the few blessed places in the world where curiosity can find its foothold, where uncertainty is a way of life.


The Anonymous Professor

  • Her son was murdered, and she began to study sociology as a way to understand the world her son had travelled in. She now teaches at a small college, a 5/5 load, trying to bring other students to understand of the duties of friends.
  • He grew up in wheat country, not understanding as a child that the grain elevators and railroad tracks, along with bringing a few jobs in, also took enormous resources away for pennies. “I never heard the word taco until I was twenty-five,” he said. “I never had one until I was twenty-seven.” He now teaches others how to read—and to be curious about—the world around them.
  • He has published nearly 500 articles in chemistry, and his new college lured him away from a prior position with a lab fund of two million dollars and a job for his wife. He makes two dozen international trips a year, and has not booked his own travel in twenty years. He brings undergraduate students into his lab teams, working alongside postdocs.
  • “I decided when I was twelve,” she said, “that I either had to go to college or I’d end up like my family.” She recently used vacation days to attend the funeral of her brother, who’d died of an overdose, following on the history of their father’s similar demise years earlier. She did not tell her faculty colleagues why she was away.
  • She graduated from high school at 17, her BS in mechanical engineering at 21, her PhD in mechanical engineering at 25, and was tenured at a top-tier research university at 31. She brings her school millions of dollars a year in research funding, and has been responsible for dozens of new PhDs from her research group.
  • He works in the registrar’s office at another college, and also DJs on the weekends. He collects international rock music, and once burned a CD of Vietnamese psychedelia for a colleague in his office. He teaches Intro to Sociology at a nearby community college, on their late-night shift from 11:30 pm to 2:30 am.

How little we know of those people who stand in front of us. If we become one of them, how little we know of our colleagues. As long as we hold our generic label of “professor”—as opaque a term as “barista” or “waitress” or “soldier,” a nameless servant who does their duty—we are permitted to not know the person. Education can be thought of merely as packets of information being shifted back and forth between invisible entities, like automated stock trading.

“Student,” of course, is equally opaque. But because of their youth and naivete, they’re often more willing to tell us their stories. I had a young woman in tears in my office, knowing (incorrectly) that she wasn’t capable of doing the work that her college demanded. “I know I’m only here because of field hockey,” she wept. I had a young man in class who was going to college in order to make enough money to buy back the farm that had been in his family for five generations, that his father had been forced to sell. I had varsity athletes who told me of the galvanized steel pails around the weight room that were there within handy reach, for them to vomit into from overexertion and dehydration in their pre-dawn workouts. I had a student tell me about his mother calling from Taiwan every Saturday morning to find out if he was dating a nice Chinese girl yet, to tell him once again how it would be her death and shame if her grandchildren spoke another language.

Why do we leave our homes and become something other? Why do we stand on the far shore and try to welcome various of the refugees escaping their homelands? Why do we become so obsessed by fruit-fly digestive chemistry, or a 19th century political economist, or the ways that teenagers use their communities, that we spend much of a career in isolation, pursuing those ghosts? The answers are as diverse as we are, too often hidden away even from ourselves. If we explored, and shared, the motives and dreams and fears that drive us, perhaps we would do better at the human work of teaching and learning.