Da Book, It Lives!

The collection is nearly done and the blog will be returning to its irregularly scheduled programming next week.

The book is nice and tight, at circa 83k words. It will soon be off to graze on greener pastures , with editor Melanie R. Nelson of Annorlunda Books. If all goes well, we might be looking at an April release date!

Here’s a tentative high-level table of contents (i.e., chapter titles only). Each chapter has a number of essays in it and at least one cartoon, but usually several. I am pretty clear in the foreword that this is about my experiences at a research university and in the sciences, so its applicability may be somewhat limited.

Foreword (What the Book is About)
What Professors at Research Universities Actually Do
Academic Job Search
The Tenure Track
Teaching and Service
Grant Proposals and Funding
Working with Grad Students and Postdocs
Technical Writing with Junior Scientists
Peer Review of Papers and Grant Proposals
Giving Talks and Networking
Colleagues, Collaborators, and Academic Politics
Work-Life Balance
Women in STEM

There were a couple of changes that I realized I would have to make.

One is that I need a real-name-sounding pseudonym for indexing purposes. I have come up with one, and it’s pretty awesome; Eldest grudgingly helped while munching on peppered pistachios.

Another, where I would appreciate people’s input, is the title. I wanted to call the book “Academic Jungle,” like the old blog, but last year somebody self-published a book by the same title (I won’t link to it, you can find it on Amazon if you want; based on what I read of it, I don’t feel like I can recommend it). However, the book blurb sounds, on the surface, similar enough to what my book is about, that we don’t want to go there and get the two mixed.

So we need a new title. The subtitle will be along the lines of “Essays and Cartoons on Being a Professor at a Research University in the US.”

Here are some title suggestions for the book, more or less silly.

1) Xykademiqz (obviously awesome, even if it doesn’t mean anything)
2) Confessing on Professing (even I say “ugh!” to this one)
3) Acadreamia (upon googling, found out there is a design firm with this name)
4) I Dream of Academe (there seems to be a blog or something similar with this name)
5) Funkademia (there is a night club with that name; also, I am not funky at all)
6) Adventures in Academic Science (my favorite, although vaguely resembling the title of Janet Stemwedel’s blog)
7a) The Research University (would require massaging of the subtitle to something like Essays and Cartoons on Academic Science in the US)
7b) Adventures at a Research University (w/ same subtitle as above)
8) Academic Confidential (there is a similarly titled post in Inside Higher Ed)
9) STEMcademics (too vague? )
10) Momcademics (I don’t want to lead with the momminess of my existence)
11) I Have the Best Job in the World (rubbing it in much?)
12) Glass Ceiling in the Ivory Tower (would be OK if it were all about women in science, but it’s not; also, someone thought about it, found upon googling)
13) Granting Wishes (Eldest’s contribution; would be great if it were focused on grants)

What say you, blogosphere? Thoughts, suggestions? Favorites, least favorites?

Quaddroppings 6: On Advising Grad Students

Here is a repost of four recent casualties in my murder-of-darlings spree, as I work on this collection.

Dislikable

Do you actually have to like your students? Or is it at least important not to dislike them?

What if there is a student who really pushes your buttons? Perhaps they are not even doing it on purpose, maybe it’s cluelessness, or just a bad match. I certainly have experience with irritating people right off the bat, without actually having done anything. (I am sure some readers are going to come and tell me that this never happens to them and everybody who meets them loves them instantaneously; my DH is one of those people. Let’s just agree that some people are just universally lovable and some are universally irritating. I am not universally lovable. Kudos to you if you are.)

We professors are human, and I can attest that there are plenty of temperamental professors; also, there are plenty of even-keeled ones. While being calm and acting dispassionately can be learned, and with practice in advising you become better at dealing with common advising issues, if you have a temper you might get really irritated. Even if you don’t show it, you know it and you feel it.

I would say that I really like the vast majority of my students. I feel responsible for and protective of them. I make sure they are not just productive, but that they seem balanced, happy, and healthy. I guess (hope?) that most faculty feel the same about most of their advisees.

But, very rarely, there is a student who just pushes all your buttons. All the interactions are accompanied by friction, there is an underlying current of mismatch, of irritation. You start dreading meeting the student. You find that you scold the student in front of peers once or twice, which you don’t want to do. It’s particularly unsettling if the student is actually reasonably productive. Then you feel like a total douche for constantly butting heads with them over minutiae, but it is getting on your nerves that the student is the only one who insists on using a graphics software/presentation software/presentation templates/text processor/compiler/operating system  different from the rest of the group because that’s just what they are used to and don’t want to use anything else (I hate software snobs). You want to be permissive, accommodating, but it is in the way of actually doing work the way you want to in your group, it creates problems with sharing of material, it undermines your authority with the group because you are constantly butting heads, and it seems like the student just cannot pick up on the normal clues that things are wrong or to generalize from recent conflicting situations; you have to be unpleasantly explicit with stupid minutiae all the time, over and over again. The student seems to barely notice; your veins are about to pop.

Then you know that you really, truly dislike the student.

The question is whether you should continue advising them. For you and for them. If the only one irritated is you and you have plenty of Tums on hand, while they seem to be happy in oblivion, does it matter? Are you really an effective advisor if they get on your nerves? If they switch advisors, there is no guarantee that they wouldn’t irritate the next person similarly, especially if the stubbornness and general social cluelessness are truly an issue.

I think working with a student who really pushes your buttons is different than having a coworker who does so, because of the power differential. I don’t know that one can be a good advisor to a student they don’t like, just like I can’t believe you can be a good parent to a child you don’t like (plenty of examples say the latter is an awful predicament for the child).

But isn’t it shallow and frivolous to sever an advising relationship with a student basically saying “This is not working out. I think you might be happier elsewhere,” which is the advising version of “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Advisors are human. If you think they are infallible and immovable, that’s only because  they are pretending, to a degree, and some are better than others at it. Some let unbelievable offenses slide. Others do too, then write irritated essays on the web under a pseudonym. But if you are a difficult, they notice. If you think they are looking like they are fuming around you, that’s because they are. They are fuming because you behave like you know everything and you don’t listen. So shut up. Listen.

I wonder if professorial dudes ever experience these annoying examples of disrespect, of do just us professorial womenfolk have such precious gift bestowed upon us?

Grad-School Work Ethic

When you blog for a while, sooner or later you start revisiting the topics you discussed before. Some of them you visit multiple times. A few, ad nauseam.

One of these perennial conundrums is what the necessary skills are for someone to become a successful academic scientist or engineer. In particular, how much zeal, drive, motivation, whathaveyou, does a student have to have in order to get a PhD? I am not saying that they have to ever become a professor or even want to be one; just to finish a PhD, presumably funded on a research assistantship, teaching assistantship, or fellowship (i.e. not paying for the PhD out of pocket). (The usual disclaimer — I have experience with a physical science field at a major research university. This is a context in which I am interested.)

When I talk with my colleagues about students, there are two kinds of responses. On the one end, you have people who never say anything but the best about all their students; that usually means the colleagues choose not to talk with me honestly. In some cases, these colleagues appear to actually think all the best about their students, but it doesn’t mean that the colleagues are unusually fortunate to have exceptional advisees (I have met many of said advisees), but instead the colleagues have a combination of what I would call a low bar for student performance combined with a high belief in the good in people. I understand those who choose not to talk with me honestly, but I don’t understand the endlessly permissive and encouraging kind. I am simply too impatient, life is too short to wait for people forever to get their $hit together, plus I am responsible to funding agencies. Also, I don’t believe in people enough. Or, actually, I do; I do believe that most people would rather not work than work, and I believe there are few things that people who don’t want to work wouldn’t do in order to avoid doing work. What I don’t understand is why people who don’t want to do work elect to do a PhD, a degree that is arguably not mandatory to get. What I understand even less is why we in academia allow so many students who endured their PhDs with boredom and little effort to eventually graduate with a PhD. Getting a PhD could and should be a great time, a time when you do science and talk with other smart young people, go to conferences, and partake in pushing the cutting edge of human knowledge. Yet so many just… endure. The whole ordeal underwhelms them and they can’t wait to get out. Why? Why do the stupid PhD in the first place? They should have done something that doesn’t bore them instead; get some sort of job straight out of college, working regular hours, and spending their free time doing whatever they daydream about doing when they are not doing the research that they are supposed to be doing while in grad school.

The colleagues who talk with me honestly about their experiences with students all generally share the same sentiment: most students are “not very good;” it holds even at the very top places. That doesn’t mean that the students are not smart; there are plenty of intelligent people around. It generally means that the students are nowhere near as devoted to their work as we, their advisors, would like them to be. The thing is, I don’t think sane advisors expect complete and total devotion, or working 24/7; not even close. But we do expect sufficient work and sufficient devotion. I think if the students actually tried to work, but really work, 40 hours per week, a lot of work would get done. A. LOT. The problem is that most students in graduate school do not actually work even close to those hours. They sit and goof around more than they work. Those who put in the time for real are already ahead of the pack. They don’t have to kill themselves working, they don’t even have to work the hours of a grownup academic; they just have to work the hours of a normal grownup holding a secure and possibly somewhat mundane job (many admins at my uni come to mind).

Here are some examples of what irritates advisors:

  1. Professor comes into their grad students’ office at something like 2 pm on a Wednesday or a Thursday. One of the students is playing aMMORPG. The student then proceeds to tell the advisor how he (the student) didn’t have enough time to do research because his teaching duties were taking too much of his time. Somehow, that plea would have been considerably more convincing if the advisor hadn’t just seen the student royally waste his time.  Also, this student rarely answers emails over the weekend. So he keeps his work strictly confined to the work week, making sure that work does not spill over into his free time. The fun, however, is apparently allowed to spill everywhere, such as into the middle of the work week.
  2. Keeping regular hours at work is great, but they also have to be sufficienthours. A counter-example is a student who works regular hours, but they are 11-4 or 12-4. The output after nearly 5 years has been barely 2 papers (not enough for a PhD and well below typical group member output in that time). The student has of late been actively interviewing for jobs (as in, doing nothing but interviewing or cramming for the interviews); that’s all the student does these days, while being on a full research assistantship. The advisor has to remind the student that enough work for a PhD actually has to be done first. Before we say that the advisor is an awful human being and an even worse advisor, let’s just reflect for a second on how much time during regular work day one would be allowed to spend cramming for interviews anywhere in the fabled “real world” that academia is supposedly not a part of. Exactly none. So no,  it is not OK to drop research completely while interviewing, unless the student is entirely paying his or her way through grad school. No? Then  the student should actually keep working until done. But honestly, I am pretty sure the advisor would probably be much more understanding if this were a student who had previously shown strong or even sufficient productivity. By the way, this is another student who does not answer emails over the weekend.

Here is an example of a model (real) student. Note that nobody is talking about working 24/7.

The student is at the office at 9 and leaves at 5, and in the meantime actually works. In two years, the student has gone from one who was the youngest and the least prepared, to having a really impressive first-author paper already out, a couple of others in the pipeline, and generally now being the advisor’s go-to student for when something new and fun has to be tried quickly. In part, being in the office when the advisor is looking for someone to run crazy ideas by definitely helps with becoming the Golden Child. The advisor knew the student was smart from the get-go, but so are many others; the advisor is positive that the quick rise in competency and especially productivity has to do with the student having a strong work ethic. This student does answer the occasional email over the weekend.

By the way, I really hate people (students, colleagues, everyone) who don’t respond to emails during weekends. It doesn’t have to be instantaneous, but do check your goddamn email once a day over the weekend. Why is that so much to ask? Usually all I need is for a student to send me a file or clarify a  piece of data (if I send weekend emails to students, they are of the “Can you send me your PPT from last group meeting?” or “In Fig. 5 of the manuscript I am working on, what is the value of parameter alpha you used, it’s missing in the caption?”)

Another thing: in my view, one takes a vacation when one deserves a vacation, i.e., some work should be done between successive vacations. In my experience, the students who are most keen on having frequent out-of town long weekends and few-day vacations are also those who generally put in the fewest hours during the week. My honest gut reaction (don’t worry, I  keep it to myself) to that is “WTF are you so tired from that you constantly need to go on vacation?!”

I try to talk to my students, especially in group meetings, about the necessity of keeping regular hours and actually putting in enough hours. And I remind them that graduate school is not mandatory and it’s up to them to make it a successful experience and a good take-off ramp for the rest of their careers. I tell them that I am there to help if they are stuck or frustrated, but that they need to work hard and that how fast they finish and how many papers they have at the time is really up to them.

I am not sure what we as advisors can do to motivate people. I try to lead by example; I work a lot and I get a lot done. But for the most part all that my example has done is made people not want to do my job, which is fine. I think it boils down to whether or not the student is intrinsically motivated or not, wanting to adopt the practices that lead to growth and improvement. I think we as advisors can do little but encourage, talk, and at a certain point, if some threshold hasn’t been met, sever the relationship… Then the question becomes at which point is having an anemic performance during a PhD enough to tell a person “You really should not be doing a PhD in this group. For both our sakes.”

On Coaching and Advising

Many professors, regardless of how good their institution is, lament the quality of PhD applicants and think they’d do amazing things if only they had better students. The most important thing about being a professor in a STEM field that requires working with graduate students is learning how to effectively advise the students you have rather than the students you wish you had. Perhaps equally important is realizing that there is no such thing as a perfect student, that every student has a lot to learn, and that many (most?) students have something good to offer. Presumably similar to what coaches of a team do, you as advisor need to learn what  your student’s strengths and weaknesses are and work with them accordingly: pick a project that employs their strengths but also forces them to grow in the directions where they need help. A talented student could do many projects well, for a less talented one you might have to eliminate certain options. There are projects that could be done by many different students, then there are those that await someone with a very special skill set or affinity.

Sometimes a student who had shown great promise proved to be uncoachable, improving very little outside of the initial areas of strength,  because they they didn’t want to listen to me and didn’t think what I said was actually important. On the other hand, I was surprised several times by what some students could pull off within a year or two, after they’ve gained some experience and confidence. More than once, a student who had started out quite wobbly subsequently found his or her legs, and was then able to metaphorically outrun those who initially looked much stronger.

In academia, there are many students who are talented enough. If they want to listen, and they work with an invested advisor, they can improve and grow to become very good.

“Whiplash” and Thoughts on Achievement

I saw the movie “Whiplash”. It’s awesome. This movie got me thinking, again, about talent vs hard work, external pressure vs internal drive. This is what its IMDB blurb says:

A promising young drummer enrolls at a cutthroat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a students potential.

We see the lead character, a 19-year-old drummer, work obsessively and push himself to the limits (Bandaids are apparently a key part of equipment for drummers). That’s inner drive. What I still don’t know is whether or not it is possible to ignite that spark in someone who doesn’t already possess it. Sure, you can push and pressure kids while they are little, but at some point they will rebel unless what they are pushed to do is what they actually want to do.

The music school teacher is abusive in every sense — physically, verbally, emotionally. He’s a manipulative jerk. But, apparently, he believes that’s the way to entice greatness, by building up and breaking down those with potential, as he feels those with true greatness would not be deterred by abuse and would instead only work harder and harder in the face of adversity. I don’t know about that; in the process of uncovering a rare gem via great abuse, many will completely wash out and possibly kill themselves.

My spouse and I don’t push our kids very much, and I wonder if we are mistaken.  But at some point achievements start to count and you see that your kid might be behind because you didn’t know you were supposed to start pushing them much earlier. And does it make sense to insist if a kid doesn’t have talent? And who decides who has talent? I can judge talent for math and science and perhaps to a small degree art, but not much else. We all know “10% inspiration, 90% perspiration”, but what if the inspiration or natural ability are just not there?

Most people are unremarkable. Some, perhaps many, are marginally remarkable, at the level of high school or college or some professional community. None would be the wiser if most of us hadn’t been born at all. When you think about it, it’s quite depressing.

One thing that the teacher in “Whiplash” said was that “Good job” were the worst two words in the English language, because they encourage passivity. I tend to agree that they are overused, and that there is great focus on just showing up and putting in half-assed effort. Effort is a necessary but not sufficient condition for achievement.

I have a collaborator who dishes continuous praise to graduate students, for even the most idiotic of achievements (“You printed these 3 figures so you’d show them to us? Good job!”) There is no need to be abusive, but I don’t praise my graduate students until they have actually done something worth praising, something that took both effort and skill. Usually, when the materials are starting to come together for our first joint paper is when a student might expect to hear “Well done!” I might also praise for unusually good performance, when someone does someone much faster than expected, or shows uncommon creativity, originality, or initiative. So no, I am not an over-praiser because that cheapens true achievement, but I am not a praise-miser either.

Also, never outside of the US have I heard kids say so often and with such conviction “I am not good at x,” where x is something that they tried once or not at all. With my own kids, it gets on my nerves a lot that there are so many things they give up on before even seriously trying, and I don’t know how to fix that. I keep talking to them, that they just have to keep trying and they will keep getting better. It often falls on deaf ears.

But, on the other hand, many undergraduate students (and my own Eldest on occasion) have this idea that putting in great but perhaps misplaced effort is somehow supposed to be valued the same as achievement. Sometimes I get this as part of teaching evaluation, that I assign a lot of work and that the grade doesn’t reflect the amount of effort the student put in. The grade reflects what you have shown in terms of mastery. If you are between grades, sure, it may tip you over towards the higher one if you are a really hard worker, but hard work alone is not enough. You have to also work smart. If you don’t know how, you have to know to ask for help, as much help as needed until you crack the code of what the best way to apply effort is. That’s why people have coaches and advisors and supervisors…

I find that in trying to understand my kids I have serious limitations by simply being myself. I want to support their efforts and encourage them when they waver. But there is support and encouragement, and then there’s unwelcome pressure. The problem is that they can seem very alike.

Then there is just letting kids be. I grew up like that and it turned out I was plenty driven, but how to best parent the kids who may not be? What happens with the kids who are not driven themselves and who are also not pushed externally? Does everyone eventually find something they are passionate about? The world doesn’t wait for the indecisive to decide, and before you know it, it’s college admission time.

How do you determine that an effort is worth pursuing? That it’s something where you have the potential to be excellent, rather than barely above average with tremendous sweat? How do you decide you truly have no real ability versus that you would really get good with more effort? Where is the line between encouraging and badgering?

At my advanced age, I have found that I am doing better work than ever and am being more creative. Part is that I am finally believing that I am allowed to be here and do the things I do. I actually know that I can do this job and now I can, more often than not, actually summon this intellectual awareness to combat bouts of impostor syndrome. I have sufficient track record, so I finally have some confidence. I still think I am not at the tippity top, but with increased confidence the quality of the papers I publish has been steadily increasing and I am finally getting to the point of being bold and brave with my submissions, as opposed to conservative.  I have done a lot of work to earn my confidence. I envy those who were confident to begin with. Maybe that’s what having real talent means, never doubting that you will be successful (although considering how prevalent it is in dudes of certain demographics as opposed to others, I would say good old patriarchy has its hands in it, as well). I know the insecurity has been a driver for me, to get better and achieve. But now success is a different kind of driver, in that my appetites have increased. I think a good combo of external discouragement (leading to stubbornness, keeping at it and improving) and encouragement (leading to boldness and increasing ambition) may be the right thing leading to increasing performance. You need to grow your dreams, but you also have to grow the skills to match the ambition.

This and That

We had an unexpected episode of bed wetting,so we are all up about an hour earlier than usual, everyone has been fed and dressed, and I have a tiny bit of free time! Just enough to jot down a few lines.

I have been working on the book and it’s nearing completion. Well, at least the form I will submit for publication. I have managed to pare it down to about 112k words and still have some relatively serious editing to do.
The experience has been interesting. One insight — trivial when you think of it, but still somewhat unexpected — was that the newer posts were generally better quality than the older ones. Better flow, better editing. I don’t sound quite as constipated as I used to.

This reminds me of an exchange that Zach Weinersmith (“Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal“) had, I think on Reddit. Someone asked Zach something along the lines of “Your newer comics are so great, you hardly have any misses! (As in, unfunny jokes.) The older ones, not so much. Why do you think that is?” To which Zach replied something like, “That’s like asking an NBA player why he spent his toddler years $hitting his pants and not making three-pointers from halfway across the court.” Damn straight.

Of course, you get better with practice, but I guess you don’t realize just how much better, until you really look at the material and compare. It’s humbling, really. There is some good stuff there, but much wasn’t as good as I remember it. Or maybe this whole book business is making me a touch grumpy (shut up, CPP).

But it’s getting there and I want to be proud of it.

***

In other news, I have been reading some working mom blogs, and the issue of being near family at the price of living in a ridiculously high-cost-of-living area came up. One particular blogger and her husband, both professionals and with the student loans to prove it, work for not-for-profit organizations. Being that they live in an extremely pricey area, in large part to be near parents, they can only live fairly modestly on their income and it bothers the blogger.

I must say I don’t really understand this mindset. I am not judging, but the blogger’s priorities appear to be different enough from mine that it’s not easy for me to appreciate what she considers to be positive trade-offs. I grew up middle class-ish in Europe, according to local standards. My parents worked, yet we all lived with my maternal grandparents. It was cramped, but a very common living arrangement. I was not poor; had I stayed there, I could have had a modest life. I already had a job, but there were no opportunities — not to grow, not to learn, not to change jobs, not to travel, not to ever buy property. I might have ended up living with my or my husband’s parents pretty much till they died. My kids would have grown up to be scrappy and rude little monsters, as is common there. I would have had a lot of help from family, and the proximity of them and my friends would have been nice in some ways. So I feel like I left a situation that would not have been much worse than what the blogger describes, yet it was absolutely suffocating for me. To me, actually not being around family and friends of yore is liberating (there can be a lot of emotional manipulation involved in all that free babysitting).

I grew up in a large city and thought I always absolutely had to live in a place like that. It turns out, I don’t. I currently live in a very nice city that’s about 1/10 the population  of the city I grew up in. It’s still plenty large, and with what DH and I make, we have a very nice standard of living. I am happy that coastal people think we’re in flyover country; all the better, they won’t come here and raise our property prices. Being able to afford things — a house that’s big enough so we can spend 6 months snowed in without going stir-crazy, going on non-extravagant vacations (note the plural) every year, having college savings for the kids, paying for extracurriculars and enrichment — this is all very important to DH and me.

Being away from ancestral home is an added bonus. There’s love, but also so much drama. You don’t want to know what a gloomy piece of crap I would have been 24/7 if I had stayed at home. An example: my mother’s mantra is “If you think your life is great, put a small pebble in your shoe so it bothers you.” That’s how you grow up to be anxious, suspicious of your good fortune and good times, constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, accepting crappiness as the normal state of affairs.

I am not judging the blogger, I simply admit that I don’t fully understand why someone has to end up living extremely modestly (the blogger is bothered by it, that’s why it’s a problem) just to live in a certain city and be near parents, when they could live quite comfortably elsewhere and have the money to travel to see said grandparents and other attractions. And they don’t even have to emigrate to do that, as emigration is not for the faint of heart; they remain technically among their own compatriots.  This is such as great big country, people should take advantage of what it has to offer. Again, I am not judging, but it’s just very different from my perspective and what I consider important, so it’s not easy to relate. Then again, I might just be a crappy daughter.

But the US of A is wonderful. One of these days, I will drive coast to coast, and then north to south. Okay, it might take more than one of these days.

***

A very nice post by Mel of “Stirrup Queens”on how the online life is the real life.

Apropos Nothing

The true mark of a successful person is not that they never fail, but that they almost never fail. Nah, just kidding. The true mark of a successful person is not that they never fail, but that they quickly bounce back from failure. Also, it’s much easier to bounce back from failure if you occasionally succeed. Or better yet, if you often succeed. If you seldom succeed at anything, yet you keep bouncing back like a goddamn rubber band, going at it again and again, you are not a soon-to-be successful person; you are Don Quixote.

I found $2 on the ground in the parking garage. Thought I’d use it to buy coffee. I donated it at a high-school swim meet instead. Easy come, easy go.

I am not ready for the new semester. I have a humongous class and essentially no help (I have a grader for HW, but no real TA). I could get more help if I converted to the a buzzwordy teaching fad du jour (which I have no intention of doing) and which does very little in terms of teaching students to grapple with technical problems, but does great at making then feel warm and fuzzy and good about themselves the whole time. It is bullshit, and I have seen some scary products of this mode of transmission. When are we going to stop pretending that you can somehow teach students anything worth learning without them putting in any effort, feeling any discomfort, or taking ownership of their own learning?

Finally, I read “Ancillary Mercy,” the third book in the Imperial Radch series (Ann Leckie). While the first book (“Ancillary Justice”) was mindblowing (I am not at all surprised that it won both Hugo and Nebula), the second one (“Ancillary Sword”) was good and the third (“Ancillary Mercy”) was very, very  good. Translator Zeiat, Sphene, and Athoek Station are a hoot!

Listless

Over the past several weeks, I have read a number of post around the blogosphere about the organizational habits of people (specifically women) who really love lists. Actually, the love for lists and organization in general seems to be quite widespread (so says me, based entirely on anecdata).

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with liking to be organized. Kudos to people who pull it off using lists, and I certainly appreciate the appeal of colorful stationery. But, lists don’t really work for me and never have; quite the contrary.

To be honest, I am truly  averse to lists, especially to-do lists. Averse, as in: they make me physically uncomfortable, like I want to jump out of my skin. (Again, that doesn’t mean lists are bad or that there is anything wrong with them.) I have just never managed to find any that is appealing or that does justice to the swarm of multicolored and shape-shifting, constantly moving and interacting abstract objects that are the tasks in my head (sort of).

This post is for the people who are like me and for the list lovers who haven’t met any “listless” (list-free?) specimens in the wild.

I am reasonably successful both professionally and personally, so obviously I somehow get things done. How do I stay quasi-organized?

** Recurrent appointments (both professional and personal): Class, discussion, office hours, group meeting, faculty meeting, a small number of important standing committees; the kids’s recurrent activities (such as after-school sports) — I know when those are, so I don’t need to put them on calendars or lists. The kids also remember their own recurrent obligations.

** Non-recurrent appointments (both professional and personal): One-off meetings, out-of-town travel, appointments of all stripes for self and kids… They get entered into my phone calendar, usually with two reminders each. I love how easy it is to just click on the date in an email and make an appointment. Entering appointments in my phone calendar is the ONLY way I have found that a) I don’t hate doing it with a burning passion of a thousand suns and b) once I am done entering, I am comfortable simply forgetting about until the reminder goes off. Kids’ activities also get listed on the large dry-erase calendar board (similar to this one) that we have in the kitchen. It has a bit of cork near the bottom, where we also tack birthday party invitations, the schedule of Eldest’s meets or Middle Boy’s games, and anything that may be more than a month out.

** Meal planning: I don’t do it. There are a number of things that I buy every week; for example, cereal, 3 kinds of milk, eggs; butter, deli, fruit, bread, cheese that go into DH’s and the older boys’ lunches, etc. Before I go on the weekly grocery run, I do a quick survey of the fridge/pantry to see what’s missing and, as I am about to leave, I also ask if there is anything anyone needs (usually there are a few items, or a reminder from DH to get toilet paper and the like). Once at the grocery store, I go by what looks good. I tour the store starting with dairy, then bread, meat, deli, and ending with produce;  that way I see what meat looks good, as they don’t always have the same cuts, and also what I feel inspired to make. Afterward, I get the vegetables and other ingredients to complement. Sometimes some nice produce is inspirational and takes center stage. I suppose this can be considered planning meals on the fly. If I am tired or will be busy in the coming week, there will be a frozen lasagna one day, beef and vegetables for two-days worth of of  soup or stew, and a two-days worth of pork roast with vegetables and potatoes; both of the latter take a while to cook but don’t require much tending and can be done in the evening; Eldest makes the frozen lasagna for us after he comes back from school. If I have the time and energy, I will cook dishes that have complicated prep, require more tending to, or are best eaten right away (e.g., stir-fry). But, generally, unless we have guests coming and I have specific dishes I want to make, or I am dead-set on trying something new (both can wait till the weekend, when I have some time), I don’t write out meal plans or create shopping lists based on recipe books the way many people seem to (and they seem to enjoy doing it).

** To-do lists (personal): Things like “Buy new pants for [insert kid]” I just sort of remember. Specifically, both DH and I remember them and forget them and remember them and forget them, and kind of remind each other a few times until one of us just does it. It sounds like it takes forever, but actually it doesn’t. Usually, these to-do things happen over the weekend, often en route to a playdate pick-up/drop-off or grocery-store run. Occasionally, they make it onto the family dry-erase board. I am not the artsy-craftsy type, so I don’t have long-term home projects that require careful planning (unless you count this book I am working on).

** To-do lists (professional): Teaching stuff is usually short term (write homework, write solution to homework, write exam, grade exam), so it’s easy to remember and then just do. Service stuff is often nearly brainless and short term, in which case it’s easy to remember. Anything on which I have to actually do some intellectually nontrivial work, I put in the email folded called “Pending.” I tried to have more specific folders, but it doesn’t work for me; I start obsessing where things should be classified and then I just don’t want to use any of it (I am guessing that’s why lists don’t work for me either; I have yet to find a list that is works with the way things are organized in my head). Anyway, “Pending” folder. Something comes in (requests to review paper or proposal, recommendation letters, etc.), I open email, note and highlight due date, and just dump it in the “Pending” folder. When things are done, they get moved to “Complete.”

As for research, the following is the only planning activity that gives me pleasure of the kind that some bloggers report making daily lists of small tasks does for them. I have a long-form CV in which I put everything. That means that, when I feel that we are nearing the submission of a paper, I put a tentative list of authors, a tentative title, and a tentative submission date in my “Papers in the Works” section. It  makes me happy to see the stuff that’s cooking. I do the same for proposals, the talks that I am about to give, conference abstracts, but only looking at the list of my beautiful emerging papers gives me what I guess is a tiny short of dopamine.

I do make skeletons of papers and proposals. But the technical stuff that needs to be done just comes naturally, as the next logical thing. With students, I do write and email summaries of what we discussed and decide to do next.

** How do I plan my work day? I definitely don’t write anything out. If there are non-recurrent meetings, the phone calendar has already alerted me of those (and will again, a little before the meetings). There is recurrent stuff like teaching, and then there are things that are urgent and can take much of my time, especially during the semester. I have a day, occasionally two, per week that is meeting-free and wherein I try to squeeze some writing of papers or proposals (it’s usually clear which one when). Sadly, these blocks of time sometimes get eaten by urgent non-sciency tasks. Oh, well. When it’s proposal-writing time, I have an excuse to drop everything except teaching and nobody begrudges it! It’s awesome.

That’s about it, I think. Anything I forgot?

Anyone out there who is also list-averse yet manages to get things done? Or am I the only freak?