19 January 2017

How a catchy title bit me in the butt

At SICB, the committee I chair, the Student and Post Doc Affairs committee, SPDAC, has a noon event every year. It’s usually some sort of workshop. This year, I wanted something that would complement the society’s incoming Code of Conduct for the meeting ,and wanted more of a roundtable than a presentation.

The title I came up for the roundtable was: “Low on the totem pole: power structures and power struggles in academia.”

I was pleased that I had not used the phrase, “Low man on the totem pole.” It’s an often used phrase (as the picture at right demonstrates), but does exclude half the population.

But the title was called out on Twitter as “cultural appropriation.”

It isn’t great considering that the Society is pushing for more inclusivity, and even has a Broadening Participation Committee (which I was encouraged to attend). And inclusivity is something I try my best to support.

The gist of the argument, as I understood it, was that the use of the phrase was inaccurate: the position on a totem pole in First Nations cultures didn’t indicate anything about power or status.
 My first reaction was to clench up and want to say, “I didn’t do anything wrong!” But after a few seconds thought, that didn’t seem to be a particularly helpful reaction.

The first thing I did was to make clear that the title was entirely my choice, and therefore my fault. That way, if anyone was going to be mad about it, they knew to be mad at me, and not the Society in general or the Executive Committee or anyone else. It was my decision, and I had to live with it.

I also said that I was happy to talk about it. The SPDAC had a booth in the conference vendor room, so I did have a place anyone could come and find me. There was a little more discussion on Twitter, but no face to face conversation.

I had some conversations with some people I trust about this to try to judge just how badly I misstepped.
Having thought about it, I realized that I could have used several other turns of phrase to get the same point across (like, “Bottom of the heap,” say). And when someone makes a polite request that you not use a phrase, and you can think of another one that makes the exactly point with only a few seconds thought, there’s no point in trying to argue that you were justified in using the phrase.

Constant improvement is the samurai way.

16 January 2017

Tenure is like vaccination

Tenure is like vaccination: they both work best when nobody opts out.

We’re in the middle of two new legislative attacks on tenure in the United States. Anti-tenure sentiment is hardly new, but it seems bound to pick up steam when I look at the current sociopolitical trends in the United States, which might be summarized as, “Don’t get comfortable.”

We academics will need to be vocal about why tenure is a good thing (here is my own defense of tenure), but I worry a lot that conditions have moved too far for us to mount an effective defense of tenure.

One of the key reactions I saw on social media to the announced bills was that abolishing tenure would cause a “brain drain” in those states, and the institutions in those states would have a hard time recruiting top notch faculty. My mind immediately jumped to this graph:

Any discussion of the academic job market that doesn’t take this graph into account is woefully deficient. Possibly even negligent.

One of the arguments for tenure is that the the increases job security compensates, to some degree, for the decreased salary. It’s generally accepted that academic pays poorly compared to industry and other non-academic positions. In theory, tenure is such an integral part of being an academic that people should not be willing to accept jobs that do not provide tenure.

The extraordinary surplus of doctoral students rather puts a wrench in that assumption. There are so many doctoral recipients that it is an employer’s market. Sure, you may lose those legendary (mythical?) “best” people, but there are plenty of people with Ph.D.s who are more than good enough: they’re still highly trained, highly skilled, and completely capable of running productive research programs.

And we know that there are many people with doctorates who are desperate enough to take positions that do not offer tenure: many of them are called “adjuncts.”

We are in a crappy situation all around. Tenure has a perception problem, because people see it as a “job for life” and a blanket protection for incompetence (it isn’t). The adjunctification of so many universities demonstrates that there are enough people willing to take jobs without tenure that both legislators and university administrators feel emboldened to reduce or eliminate tenured positions. I am deeply worried that the concept of tenure in the United States may not be able to survive these assaults.

What we are left with is the principle of the thing: tenure is supposed to allow us to do amazing long-term research, and speak truth to power. Fellow academics, if you have tenure, I urge you to use it, actively and frequently.


Related posts

What have you done lately that needed tenure?

External links

Killing tenure
Should public universities have tenure systems? (Quora)
The missing piece to changing the university culture

12 January 2017

Bound by ribbons: SICB 2017

I’ve been to the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) meeting before, and I’ve been to conferences in New Orleans before. Based on that, you would think this meeting would be routine for me.

It was not. It was a very different meeting experience, for a couple of reasons. First, I was coming off a very intense teaching semester, and I was nowhere near as prepared as I should have been. I felt discombobulated a lot during this meeting,

Second, I was at the meeting not to present any of my own science, not to see any new science. I was participating in my role as chair of the Society’s Student and Post-doctoral Affairs Committee (SPDAC). This not only gave me ribbons to put on my badge, it completely changed my conference experience.

First, there were the meetings. I understood that I had my own committee’s meeting to chair. But I didn't quite realize that I was also expected to be at two executive committee meetings, and at the Broadening Participation committee meeting. And two of those were at 7:00 am! By the time I rolled into the second early morning meeting on the last day of the conference, I was grumpy and hated the conference and the world and no amount of variety in the hotel’s breakfast offerings would cheer me up.

Then, there was the SPDAC booth. The committee, unique among all the committees, had a booth in the vendors area to serve as a place where students come ask questions ad voice concerns. I was a little embarrassed by our bare booth, so midway through day one, I got some candy and chocolates to hand out as “booth bait.” I tried to stay at the booth as much as a I could, although this was mostly coffee during coffee breaks and the poster sessions. Staying at the booth did make it a little harder to get to get to sessions and posters.

All of this meant I didn’t see as many talks, or have as many port unities to explore nearby, as I normally would at a meeting.

I also found out rather late in the game that I was expected to give a talk at the first timer’s orientation session. I had a slide deck from their previous year’s talk as a starting point, but I wasn’t given any other parameters. I thought I might be faced with maybe high tens of people, max, in an average sized room.

Instead, I was facing hundreds of people in a combined ballroom. This was just after I had posted my a little essay on why you should always be afraid during a presentation, and it was easy. I would have done things much differently if I’d known how big the room was. I just tried to be breezy and quick and show a lot of advice from people on Twitter. Fortunately, several people told me afterwards that it was good, so I got to breath a big sigh of relief.

My other performance was as the moderator of the SPDAC roundtable on academic power struggles. It took the conversation a little while to get rolling, but once it did, it was very thoughtful and enjoyable. There were lots of good ideas about how students can approach conflict resolution.

I also added three new pokémon to my pokedex in Pokémon Go.

While I had a good time and managed not to have any epic fails during the meeting (other than stores that I wanted to visit closing by the time I got there), I felt the frustration of feeling that I wasn’t prepared and could have done so much better.

The good news is that I have a chance to prove that I can do better in about 51 weeks time, when I head to San Francisco for SICB 2018.

Conference low point: Biting into a Zapp’s Voodoo flavored potato chip. I am a potato chip purist: carbs, fats, and salt are all I crave in a chip, not flavours. But the SPDAC meeting had a box lunch with only Voodoo flavoured chips. I was hungry, thought I would try it, and Cat (one of the committee members) offered me a bite of hers so I didn’t have to commit to opening the whole bag.

I had to spit it out. My instant reaction was, “People eat these voluntarily?”

04 January 2017

The Zen of Presentations, Part 69: Always be afraid

One of the best treats over this past holiday season was the debut of Trollhunters on Netflix. This animated series, co-created by filmmaker and monster nerd Guillermo del Toro, is fantastic on all counts.

Early on, the lead, Jim, is given some atypical combat advice from his troll mentor, Blinky. In fact, it’s the first fighting rule for a trollhunter.*

Always be afraid. Fear heightens your senses. Fear keeps you alive. Arrogance gets you killed.
Blinky, “Waka Chaka!” (Season 1, Episode 5), Trollhunters

I’m not afraid to give a talk. And that’s currently one of my biggest problems as a presenter: I’ve done presentations too much.

When I first started giving talks at conferences as a grad student, when I got up to the lectern, I was wired. And it was not entirely positive energy arising the excitement of sharing what I had found. No, part of it was nerves because I was afraid.

Fortunately, I was able to take that energy and use it to make the delivery more enthusiastic and animated. A lot of people who have seen me talk have used that word, “energy,” in describing my style. It worked out because I was prepared, I knew what I wanted to say, and knew what my slides were. I was nervous, but not paralyzed by nervousness.

But even as I moved through grad school, and I racked up the presentations about my thesis research, I realized that I wasn’t feeling that rush of nervous energy just before I got ready to deliver my talk.

The problem was not so much arrogance as complacency. You reach a point in developing your writing and presentation skills where you know that you can give a talk without huge preparation, and it will be reasonable. You won’t stink up the room.

Writer Alan Moore put it this way in this interview:

With the America’s Best Comics that I’ve been doing... not even a half-arsed, it’s a quarter arsed idea at best(.) “Yeah, that’ll be good, let’s have some three-eyed cowboys. I’ve got no idea what they’re going to do in the story, but this issue’s all about three-eyed cowboys.” I mean, you might think of a story that’s got three-eyed cowboys in it and hope it comes to some sort of resolution, but it always does.

I’ve been working for 25 years now and I can probably bring near enough any story to a satisfactory resolution just because I’ve been doing this every day for 25 years – you get more confident in your ability to bring a story home.

I knew that energy was important to my presentations, and had been important in reaching the audience when I talked. So I deliberately tried to make myself nervous before talks. Nervousness is a kind of energy, and I had done enough talks that I knew I could harness it and get it under control to get my energy level up where it needed to be.

Always be afraid, even if you have given a talk a hundred times before.

* Unfortunately, Trollhunter rule #1 doesn’t get as much play in the series as rule #3, because rule #3 is funnier (you’ll see).

External links

“Eye protein”: Lessons from giant monster movies

03 January 2017

Tuesday Crustie: Pride

I’ve featured lots of interesting lobster colour variants here, but that “rainbow” lobster on the right is a new one on me.

The rest of the gallery shows lots of interesting variations, mainly a few recurring colour types (orange, blue. calico, split) and claw deformities.

External links

'Rainbow lobster' leads contest for craziest crustacean

30 December 2016

2016: Where did the work go?

There are reasons aplenty to hate this wretched year, but I’m just going to focus on the professional side for me. 2016 was a year I felt like I just couldn’t get stuff done.

On paper, it was not a horrible year. On paper, the book Freshwater Crayfish was released, which I co-edited and had a couple of chapters in. But in reality, the physical copy of that book was released in August 2015.

I also had one other book chapter, in Science Blogging: The Essential Guide, back in February. But the production on that book had dragged on for so long (I first blogged that it was coming out late in 2014) that it certainly didn’t feel like it was something new.

My frustrations were compounded because I had submitted a couple of papers early in the year; one early January, in fact. But for reasons that do not need exploring at this juncture, the editorial process for both of them dragged out longer than usual and they won’t see the light of day until 2017.

(At least, I hope they will appear in 2017. One journal that has accepted one of my articles still has items in its pre-print queue today, 30 December 2016, that are dated 30 December 2015. A whole year as a “forthcoming” article? That sucks.)

The number of blog posts was down here on NeuroDojo, but holding reasonably steady on Marmorkrebs and Better Posters. I have a lot of blog posts that I started but wasn’t able to finish.

I did teach a lot this year. I just got through the heaviest teaching load in a semester I’ve had in a very long time (and am so pleased nobody yelled at me, which I was convinced was about to happen any day). I did two graduate classes that were new to me for the first time ever. I taught a grad course in summer. And I taught the #SciFund poster class for the second time.

For me, professionally, 2016 feels like “the one that got away.”