Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Some big exciting news!

UPDATE: Apparently the RSS feed at the new blog is not working yet. Hopefully it will be fixed soon (I have no control over it, sadly.) I'll put another announcement up over here when it's fixed, and in the meantime, I'll post links here to my new posts. Sorry about the confusion! It's fixed now! Head on over and join the party!

I have some exciting news.

As of today, I will be blogging over at ScienceBlogs! I am so excited and thrilled to be joining the ScienceBlogs community, with such luminaries as Zuska and ScienceWoman and Alice and the rest.

The new blog URL is

I'll still be writing about the same things I did in this space, so I hope you'll come join me in my new digs. I've enjoyed getting to know all of you in this space and look forward to continuing our conversations in the new space as well!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Scientiae turns 1!

I'm totally swamped right now, hence the lack of substantive posts. However, I am finding time to eat birthday cake (or at least dream about eating birthday cake) in honor of Scientiae's one-year anniversary! Oh yeah, and reading the fabulous collection of posts that our good friend skookumchick has put together. Go check it out (with or without cake).

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Lessons learned from sabbatical

So, regular readers of this space know that last year, at least before Baby Jane arrived, I was on sabbatical. It was always my intention to do a reflective post on "what I learned on my sabbatical" upon returning to work. But life with an infant does not allow for much reflection, so the post was never written.

I actually think that's a good thing, because now that I've been back at work for a few months, I think I have a better perspective on what my sabbatical taught me.

First, and most unexpectedly, my sabbatical brought me a new perspective on my relationship with my colleagues and my place in the department. I find that my interactions with and responses to my colleagues are more measured. I am more direct, in my opinions and requests. I speak up, but I choose my words more carefully. I am not afraid to stand up for something, but I also choose my battles better, and am more diplomatic than I used to be. Do things still bug me? Absolutely. Am I always listened to? No way. But I sense that my words and ideas now carry more weight, and that I'm getting people to listen to me and take my ideas more seriously. And that's making a huge difference, especially in how I feel day-to-day in my job.

Second, my sabbatical helped me gain a new perspective on my teaching. Actually I think it pushed along the natural evolution of my teaching, but the point is that ironically, stepping out of the classroom for a year was probably the best thing I could have done to improve my teaching. I've pared my classes down to the essentials. I teach less "stuff" than ever before, yet my students are learning tons more, asking better questions, making better insights about the material. My assignments are much better integrated into the fabric of the course---and in fact, inform the way I've structured each course. I tend to be such a detail person, which has hurt my teaching in the past, but the time away to reflect helped me develop strategies to combat this tendency. I feel comfortable in the classroom again, and confident in my ability to reach my students. I don't feel 100% sure that this will be enough to earn me tenure, but I also don't feel anymore like there's no way I'll get tenure.

Finally, as odd as this may sound given the tenor of recent posts here, sabbatical reaffirmed the importance of having some semblance of balance (ha!) in my life. OK, maybe "balance" is a little optimistic these days. But how important it is to do little things, like make time to work out every day, or take time off on the weekends, or for pete's sake enjoy my daughter and husband and do fun things as a family and get out of the house every once in a while. It's hard to justify taking the time to do these things, especially when the laundry is piling up and the kitchen floor hasn't been cleaned since Christmas and there's always more work that needs to be done, but not blowing this stuff off every once in a while is only going to make a person sick, or perpetually pissed off, and less able to Get Stuff Done. Having a chance to take an extended breather, and learning that I could be more productive when I did so, reminded me of that fact.

So there you have it. Sabbatical was of course valuable from a research perspective (although I didn't get as much done as I wanted---does anyone??), but for me, it was more valuable for the non-research related reasons. And that in itself was a particular kind of renewal for me.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

When the professional and personal collide, part 2

I missed a deadline.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided that one of the two journal articles I currently have in progress was just about ready to be sent out. I found a suitable home for it. A colleague told me that the journal has a policy of assigning reviewers quickly to articles if they are submitted by a certain date. Aha! Instant deadline! The date was definitely do-able: I'd have to do some revisions to make the page count and formatting, along with the last-minute revisions (and, oh yeah, writing the intro section), but I could definitely, and comfortably, make it.

Then life intervened.

Over the past two weeks, all of us have been sick at one time or another. We've had to juggle day care several times. I was single-parenting for a few days. There was a crisis that needed to be dealt with that took up a bunch of time and mental energy last week.

I held out faint hope for this weekend....until Mr. Jane got can't-get-off-the-couch sick, and Baby Jane decided to go on a napping strike.

Now, in the long term this is not a huge deal. The journal is not going away; I can submit it anyway, and just deal with a longer review process. Fine.

But these past few weeks, I've been completely frustrated, exasperated even, with the lack of control I've had over my life. Yes, I realize that this is par for the course when you have an infant. Yes, I realized what I was getting into....sort of. But that doesn't make it any less frustrating.

I feel like my life has to be in perfect balance for me to make progress on...anything. And anything any part of my life falls out of balance, at best I can tread water and not lose ground; at worst, I fall further and further behind. Right now, I am so far behind with what I absolutely need to have done, much less the "nonessential" stuff like research. At times like this, I feel like I'll never get everything into balance, never really be able to feel like I'm moving forward, never feel like I can relax and feel good about where I am, currently, and where I'm going.

I wonder if this feeling ever goes away, or even lessens...or if this is something I will just have to learn to deal with for the next 18 or so years.

Monday, February 18, 2008


A post in three unrelated (?) acts.

Baby Jane is trying her best to communicate with us. She is very vocal, which means that she spends a lot of time either babbling to herself (or her toys) or to us. When she babbles to us, she is very intent: she makes eye contact, she modulates her voice, she changes her inflection and her syllables. Clearly she has something very important to tell us! If only we could figure out what it was.

We have been signing to her for months now, and finally, she is signing back. Sometimes her signs are crystal clear, like the day she signed "Daddy" when Mr. Jane came home from running errands. But often they are a bit ambiguous. "Milk", for instance, is her general sign for "I'm tired and it's time for bed" (we breastfeed her as part of the bedtime ritual). Still, it's an exciting time: we know that she understands us, and finally, finally, we are starting to understand her.

Since returning from sabbatical, I've found that I am more direct with my colleagues. Maybe it's because the time away from my colleagues brought me a greater understanding of the ways in which we communicate poorly with each other. Or maybe it's because I have no time and am thus forced to be direct to save what little time I have. Whatever the reason, being direct is proving wildly successful. For instance: there's this particular thing that I've wanted to do for ages, but my chair always offers/delegates it to someone else. In the past, I've talked to my chair about getting a chance to do it, but for whatever reason, nothing ever changed. Which just led me to stew and be unhappy and complain. This time around, I decided to just tell my chair outright that I want to do this thing. No beating around the bush, no trying to find the "right" words, none of that. No, I just went to my chair and said "You know, I should do X this year." And he said "OK, that sounds like a great idea! You're on!"

How much time and energy have I wasted worrying about not being a pest or a bother, and thus not asking for what I want?

Dear Dr. Jane,

I am worried about my course grade. Could you please let me know if I am in danger of failing?

Stu Dent

Dear Stu,

Yes, you are in danger of failing. I don't know why it took you this long to get in touch with me. I mean, it's not like I haven't been begging, pleading, and cajoling you to meet with me since, oh, day 1 of the class since it is abundantly clear that you are so, so lost. I don't know how much more direct I can be with you, since I've written on every single quiz and assignment that you are NOT doing well and that you MUST come and see me ASAP so that we can stop the bleeding. I am always willing to help students, particularly with this subject matter, since it's not the easiest stuff in the world. But I can only help those who want to help themselves. You've dug yourself a hole that's pretty deep. I can help you dig out: I can loan you a shovel, and I can get you started. But ultimately, you're the one that has to do the digging. And frankly, I don't see that willingness in you.

Dr. Jane

Thursday, February 14, 2008

First rule of parenthood: All plans are tentative

I should have known it was too good to be true.

I had the perfect day planned: daycare drop-off, then home to do work for a few hours, followed by a long, romantic lunch with Mr. Jane (we so sorely need to go on a date!!) at a place we've been dying to try.

Guess who woke up with a fever this morning and didn't go to daycare?

So instead, we are spending Valentine's Day doing the Child Care Shuffle. Maybe, if we're lucky, we'll get takeout for lunch.


Monday, February 11, 2008

Returning to the classroom

I knew that returning to the classroom after a year away would be tricky. Now that I've been back for a bit, I can say that it has been easier in some respects, but trickier in ways that I maybe didn't expect.

The first week and a half was rough. The first day was fine, mainly because of (a) adrenaline and (b) I have pretty well established activities and such that I do on the first day, so by this time things flow fairly smoothly and are pretty strictly planned out. But in the days after that, I realized that I had forgotten how to "talk" to a class.

I normally go into class with notes. Depending on what I'm talking about and how familiar I am with the material, the notes may be quite detailed (a full-blown, bulleted list with definitions and diagrams) or sketchy ("Point out the parts of the loop, then show the averaging example"). But the notes mainly have (a) facts/details about the subject and (b) a general sense of the flow of the class (introduce topic, do activity, discuss what just happened, etc).

In the past, when I've been teaching regularly, these notes were sufficient for running a class. I could just go in and talk intelligently off of these notes.

Being out of the classroom, though, meant that I was out of practice in this skill. In one of my classes on the second day, I said "OK, today we're going to talk about Concept X"....and then I stopped cold, because I had no earthly idea how I was going to talk about Concept X. Even though I had a page full of notes and a firm idea of where I wanted to lead the class, I couldn't vocalize anything about Concept X that would start us down the right path, or even sound halfway intelligent. Finally I just started talking, and I think ultimately it was okay (not my best class, but certainly not my worst). But boy, was I rattled.

This sense of being a fish out of water lasted a good week or so. With time and practice, though, talking to my classes became easier. I started to remember the "hows" of teaching. More importantly, I regained my sense of comfort in the classroom, and my teaching became more natural and less stilted.

I still have days here and there where I get that fish out of water feeling again and forget how to talk about some concept or another. I had one such moment again in my last class, on a subject that I've taught a zillion times. I'd developed a particularly good way of introducing this concept, which is one of the trickier ones in the course, and I tried to recreate that in today's class, but it fell short. Ah well, there's always next class. But these days are becoming more and more rare.

I do think in general that my time away has ultimately made me a better teacher....but that's a subject for another post.