On reaching one’s destination and realizing it’s a starting point

Last summer, I gave a talk at the Evolution meetings in a session focused on science communication. My main message was: there’s value in preaching to the choir. But, as I’ll explain in this post, that talk helped me realize something else: sometimes, what you think is your destination is really a starting point.

The idea of preaching to the choir is one I’ve been thinking about a lot, especially as a result of work I’ve been doing on student understandings of and views on climate change, in collaboration with Susan Cheng and JW Hammond. We started using that metaphor because we found that almost all students entered the course we studied already accepting that climate change is occurring: when asked “Do you think climate change is happening” at the beginning of the semester, 98% of students choose one of the “agree” options. (The paper is here and open access.) In the course we studied, one of the main messages of the lecture on climate change was that climate change is occurring. Given that most of the students already thought that prior to instruction, you could argue that this course was preaching to the choir. But one of the messages of our study was that there is value in that; as one indication that it had value, after instruction, students became more confident that climate change is occurring. There’s value in preaching to the choir! I thought that message applied to science communication more broadly, so decided to make this the theme of my Evolution talk.

Before writing a talk with that theme, though, I wanted to make sure that the way I use the metaphor is the way others use it, too. I googled it, which led to me finding this amazing piece by Rebecca Solnit. The focus of her essay is on political communication, but it is very applicable to science communication, too.

So, my Evolution talk ended up having several slides with quotes from Solnit’s piece, including this one:

Karen Haygood Stokes, a minister … explained …her aim is not so much to persuade people to believe as it is to encourage them to inquire into existing beliefs. “My task as a preacher is to find the places of agreement and then move someplace from there. Not to change anybody’s mind, but to deepen an understanding.” The common ground among her parishioners is not the destination; it’s the starting point: “Have we thought critically about why we agree?”

This quote really stood out when I was reading the Solnit piece, because it was so applicable to the work we’ve been doing on student views on climate change. When we look at their short answer responses, there is huge heterogeneity that is not captured by the statistic that 98% of them accept climate change coming into the course. When asked about what factors are contributing to climate change, some seem to understand things well enough that they might be able to teach the lecture, others have a partial understanding, others say they don’t really know, and still others seem to harbor misconceptions.

When I started the work, I viewed a student clicking “accept” as my destination. This work has made me realize it’s a starting point.

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Some things that helped me make it through a particularly busy semester

This past fall was quite busy for me, and I was worried at the start about whether I’d bitten off more than I could chew. The big things taking up time were teaching over 600 students in Intro Bio and chairing a university task force on graduate student mental health, but it was also important to me that people in my lab not have to go the whole semester without getting feedback on their manuscripts, and there were also a couple of grant deadlines that I really didn’t want to miss. I knew this would be a lot, so I did my best before the semester to set up a structure that would hopefully help me through my particularly busy semester. And it worked pretty well! Things weren’t perfect, but I did the things that needed to be done and think I did them reasonably well, and I came out of the semester with my mental health intact. I think a few things really helped with managing things, and I’m hoping that sharing them might be useful to other folks, hence this post.

I’ll expand on each of these below, but the short version of my strategy is:

  1. Block off time for everything
  2. Say no to lots of things
  3. Work with good people
  4. Celebrate the wins
  5. Remember that the bar is not perfection

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How much evidence is there that we should aim to write every day? And are their downsides to suggesting that people aim for that?

As a postdoc, I read Robert Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members. I think it helped me a lot as I started my first faculty position: I blocked off time for writing, learned how to use short chunks of time productively, and tried to make sure I still got research done even while I was teaching new courses. Until fairly recently, I would have considered myself strongly on Team Boice. I have recommended his book and his approach to people over the years, including one of the ideas he’s best known for: That we should aim to write every day. Now, I’m less sure how strongly to recommend his books, and my advice on how to be a productive writer has changed.

So what changed?

First, I was on a panel with a colleague of mine who is very productive. The panel was for early career folks and there was a question about how to balance all the different demands on your time as an early career faculty member, including how to still maintain research productivity while doing all the other things new faculty need to do. I preached the Boice gospel: You have to learn how to work in small chunks of time, you have to block off time for writing regularly, you can’t wait until you have a full day to write, etc. My colleague was like “yeah, that doesn’t work for me. If I have a free half hour or even hour, I will waste it. I can’t write in that time.” Instead, he structures his weeks so that there’s at least one big chunk of time where he can write.

I was shocked – this was the wrong advice to be giving! He was leading them astray! This is not the way to get off to a strong start as an assistant professor!

Or maybe not? At that time, I would have said that I followed Boice’s advice, but, looking back, I realize I was only following parts of it. Most notably, I actually wasn’t really writing every day, and I’m not sure if I ever did that as a faculty member. I block off at least one morning a week for writing. Unlike my colleague, I do try to get some writing done in smaller blocks of time, too, though I am more likely these days to save up email for those small blocks of time and try to tackle as much of it then as I can. Overall, I do a lot of writing and editing by blocking off 2-4 hour blocks of time in my calendar.

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On getting a sense of perspective…or not

This summer, I unexpectedly spent 8 days in New York because my father was in the hospital. At first, things seemed pretty bad. I went to see him in the hospital, which was really emotional and hard. After sitting with him through dinner, I left the hospital and drove back to my parents’ house, feeling sad. When I got home, I checked my email and saw that a manuscript that I’ve been really excited about had been rejected.

I felt even worse. There was a part of my brain saying, “Come on! Dad is in the hospital! A rejected manuscript is not a big deal! You should be saying ‘Well, this gives perspective on what really matters!’” But, instead, I was feeling like I’d been kicked while I was down.

But, with other things or at other times, I do have that sense of perspective. Did I explain the Law of Segregation perfectly when a student asked about it in office hours this semester? Nope. Was it recorded? Yep. Was it a matter of life and death? Nope. I could make sure I explained it better in the next class and move on to other stuff.

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On overdetermining success, embracing messiness, getting ducks in a row, and changing course

I am chairing a task force for Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School that is focused on graduate student mental health. This is something that I care about a lot and that I really wanted to lead. But, at the same time, it was a very different sort of leadership role than I’d had before. So, as I prepared for this work, I read a variety of books about organizational change and leadership.* Some argued for overdetermining success, while others argued for embracing vulnerability and tough, messy work. I found both sets of arguments convincing.

On the day of the first meeting of the full task, I felt like it was my first day of school, with all the nervousness and excitement that comes along with that. Right before the meeting began, I was talking with Heather Fuchs, the wonderful person from the Rackham Dean’s Office who works with the task force. She asked if I felt ready for the meeting and my reply was something along the lines of, “I don’t know! Half the stuff I read said I need to overdetermine success and the other half said I need to embrace vulnerability and messiness! I’m not sure what I should do!” (Heather joked that maybe I should write a book in the future on meeting in the middle.)

I was joking with Heather, but I really had been feeling unsure of how much to try to come up with a clear, specific plan for the work of the task force versus how much to let things evolve organically. So often, when people set up a choice between A and B, my reaction is: “Why not both?”** But in this case, the suggestions—overdetermine success! embrace messiness!—felt pretty opposite. I definitely didn’t want a hybrid that overdetermined messiness! Still, I decided to try to do both, but had no idea how that was going to work out.

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Changes I made the last time I taught that I think were useful

The last time I taught Intro Bio (in Fall 2017), I felt like things went really well in terms of interacting with students. And, while they’re a flawed metric, my teaching evaluations were notably higher than they’d been in the past. I mentioned that to a friend, who knew I had set goals before the semester about what I was going to do differently, and asked if I could write them out. So I did. And then I forgot I had done that.

In May, I wrote a post on a small change I made to try to make it clearer to students that I really care a lot about their learning. The short version is: before answering a question a student asked in class, I tried to do more to signal that I appreciated them asking the question. In the comments section, someone asked if it improved my teaching evaluations. My answer was “My student evaluations were unusually high after I did this, but I changed a few things so it’s hard to know how much of an effect this had. I wrote out all the changes for a colleague who was curious, and it might be worth turning that into a blog post.”

So, here is a modified version of what I sent my frolleague (friend + colleague = frolleague!):

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On getting—and giving—well-meaning but bad advice

Listen to other people’s advice, but that doesn’t mean you should follow it.

– Janet Currie, as quoted in Air & Light & Time & Space by Helen Sword

When I was thinking about coming up for promotion to full professor, I asked some senior colleagues whether they thought it would make sense. Two senior colleagues independently said that, while they thought I was definitely deserving of promotion, they were worried that I hadn’t done enough teaching at Michigan; they thought that might cause problems for promotion. I had actually taught somewhat more than I should have, but had had several leaves, including based on having two children at Michigan. These colleagues were concerned that those gaps in my teaching record might cause problems for promotion. I decided to come up for promotion anyway—I felt confident I could write a strong teaching statement. I was promoted…and got a teaching award as part of the process.

I truly think my colleagues had my best interests in mind when they gave the advice—they have been incredibly strong advocates for women in science. (Indeed, they have surely contributed to a climate and culture that has allowed me to be successful.) But, in my case, following their advice would have led to me postponing a promotion, which would have meant postponing the raise & other benefits that come with it. As one example of the latter—I don’t think I would have been able to do some of the things I’ve done this past year related to grad student mental health without being at the full professor rank.

In the past few months, I’ve shared this story a couple of times, using it as an anecdote about how some people mean well but end up giving advice that isn’t in the best interests of the advisee. Now, based on the results of the poll we did on listing parental & other leaves on CVs, I’m realizing that I have probably* been doing the same thing. I have been advising people not to list parental leave on CVs. I didn’t have direct evidence of listing leaves on a CV being used against anyone, but was focusing on the downsides (we know some people doubt whether moms will really be committed to their work) and not on potential upsides (that committee members might productively use that information).

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What do you most think you should know but don’t?

I recently attended an event related to graduate student mental health. One point of emphasis was imposter syndrome (something I’ve blogged about before), and one thing the presenter stated was that it’s important to remind ourselves that it’s okay not to know what we’re doing. As a strategy for doing that, he suggested listing what you most think you should know but don’t. I thought this was an interesting idea, and thought it would be interesting to think about this question in three different areas:

  1. a specific area of ecology
  2. something that relates to my professional life but isn’t a content-related thing, and
  3. something outside my professional life.

I then wrote Brian & Jeremy who were on board with thinking about those questions, too, leading to this post. Read on to see what we think we should know but don’t, and please tell us what your responses are in the comments! Continue reading

Seagulling, ego itching powder, supporting one another, and happiness

A friend recently shared an episode of the 10% Happier podcast with me, in which the podcast host, Dan Harris, interviews Johann Hari about his new book, Lost Connections. When listening to it, I kept being struck by the connections to academia. One of the first connections occurs right at the beginning, when he notes that, when it comes to understanding the reasons for the rise in mental health conditions, we need to focus not just on chemical imbalances but also power imbalances. Indeed!

But the main thing I wanted to focus on in this blog post is about another part of the podcast, where Hari talks about how our society is set up in a way that is basically like ego itching powder—we are constantly encouraged to think about ourselves and whether we’re getting ahead and getting enough attention and stuff. About 25 minutes into the episode, Hari talks about:

go[ing] through the day in this ego-itching-powder mode, which the environment sets us up to do, which is: your gain is my loss, we’re in a race for scarce resources and it’s like we’re rushing out of a burning building and I’ve got to clamber over you, I’ve got to fight for every moment of what I get, and if you get ahead of me that places me in danger.

He’s talking about society in general but, of course, this applies to academia, too—academia definitely pours ego itching powder on us regularly.

Hari also talks about research that was done asking whether people can set out to make themselves happier if they try. (This is about 30 minutes into the episode.) The answer is: not if they live in the US, but yes in several other countries where this has been studied. The reason for the difference is that, in the US, we try to make ourselves happier by doing something for ourselves—maybe we buy ourselves a new pair of shoes or some chocolate or something like that—or worse, as the podcast host Dan Harris suggested: we try to crush our enemies at work. Hari compares this to trying to get your legs out of quicksand by reaching your arms and trying to grab your legs—it just makes things worse.

In contrast, in the other countries that were studied (Russia, Japan, and Taiwan), people were able to make themselves happier. That’s because in those countries, people try to make themselves happier by doing something for someone else—a friend, a family member, their community. Doing things for other people ends up making you feel happier.

Right after listening to this, I had a day where someone seagulled something research-related that I had worked on for years and was proud of—he swooped in, shit all over it, and then flew off to leave me to deal with the mess.* It made me feel bad for the rest of the day. I slept terribly, and I still felt bad the next day.

It turns out, though, that my schedule that day was filled with projects related to graduate student mental health. I was working on two different but related projects that are aimed at better supporting graduate student mental health. I spent the day working hard on them, and, at the end of the day, realized I was feeling good and hadn’t devoted any mental energy to Mr. Seagull since I had started working on the mental health projects. It doesn’t mean that what he did was okay—it wasn’t—but it was interesting to me how little it was bothering me after I’d focused on these other projects.

As I’ve been reflecting on this, I’ve been thinking about Brian’s old post on whether deans are making the same error as hen breeders. We have largely set up a culture in academia where we not only pour ego itching powder all over everyone all the time, but we also often inadvertently select against working collaboratively and trying to boost each other.

I know that I am incredibly fortunate to be in a position where I have a lot of flexibility in terms of what I work on—where I have the flexibility to choose to devote a substantial amount of time to working on projects such as the ones on student mental health. But I think this general idea can apply differently to different people at different career stages.

A year or so ago, I was on a panel with a graduate student, Leslie Decker, who said she wished someone had told her right at the start of grad school that others’ success would not prevent her own. She noted that success is not finite, and the ability of those around you to succeed does not detract from your own progress. She suggested that we should take heart in that fact and support one another.

She’s right.

 

 

* For the birders, yes, I am aware that “seagull” is not a technical term and that some of you will argue with this characterization of gulls. For folks in Britain who are aware of another meaning of the term “seagull”, yes, I am aware of it, too. I do not care about either of these objections to the term.

Am I frantically juggling when I should be letting things go off the edge of a cliff?

When I started my first faculty position at Georgia Tech, I felt like I was juggling as fast as I could; every time it felt like I was starting to get a hang of things, a new ball would get tossed in. I mentioned this at some point to someone there who said: the key is to remember that some balls are glass and some are rubber.

I was thinking about that juggling metaphor again recently because I was involved in a discussion with other faculty about how we all have too much to do. There was some discussion of the root causes of this, including a major decline in administrative support and more expectations. Obviously those are huge issues that are worthy of much more thought and systemic solutions. But there was also a discussion of what we can do individually in the short term as we all struggle with this. At some point, someone said something to the effect of, “you need to accept that you are never going to be able to do it all, and you have to accept that some things are just going to go off the edge of the cliff”.

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