Posted by Arjendu on March 1, 2013
The brownish building on the left is Kohn Hall, which hosts the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This week, I’ve been spending hours in a darkened room in there, trying my best to keep up with the talks at the workshop on ‘Quantum Control on Complex Landscapes’ going on there. I have also been trying to keep up with my ‘other/real’ job of Associate Dean, staying up late or waking up obnoxiously early in my hotel room. Lunch has been spent with other workshoppers, including my post-doc adviser and one former undergraduate student, clarifying something we’ve been hearing about, arguing about quantum mechanics in general, or just catching up with each other. Every once in a while I get 1/2 hour for a short walk.
I’ve been to KITP a handful of times before, and was a KITP scholar early in my time at Carleton; it’s also where I helped hatch the Anacapa Society. It’s one of my favorite places in the world to do physics. And not just because it’s in a gorgeous location: I love the feel and flavor of how it’s set up, encouraging conversations, collaborations, community.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Melissa on February 20, 2013
At the beginning of this month, GMP had a post struck a nerve. It began:
Lately I have been feeling… defeated.
For quite a while now, I have been fighting increasingly overwhelming helplessness, an absence of control over my time and my work.This will likely not be a revelation to long-time blog readers. But, this time I feel like I have really lost the game. I am completely torn up by the demands on my time, pulled in every direction, things are constantly needed from me. I thought I could do it: I have stamina, I have determination, I have ambition, I can do it all.
Granted, she’s in a different place than I am (at an R1, with 3 kids), but her post captured elements of what I have been hearing over and over again in conversations with close colleagues across the country who are in the same stage in their career as I am — 2-7 years past getting tenure. We started out on the tenure track enjoying teaching and excited about working with students on research. We thought the post-tenure years would allow us to explore interests more deeply, to take advantage of our experience to be wiser in our classrooms and our research labs, to feel stable enough to take some new risks. We expected to feel in control of our careers and to see our CVs expand as we continued to grow professionally. Instead, we’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off. What’s the problem? As one friend noted, “I’m watching 100s of hours time be summarized by a line on the CV that says ‘program coordinator for X’ or ‘chair of strategic initiative Y’, but that counts for nothing professionally.”
This term has featured a lot of unbloggable happenings, and I’ve had some weeks where the ratio of time spent on the administrative/service components of my job to time spent on teaching and research activities combined was 1.5 to 1. Unlike some, I don’t inherently dislike administrative work/service — I am happy to participate in conversations and activities that contribute to the campus community. But I’m a faculty member first, not an administrator, yet the demands on my time are often otherwise. As a faculty member with much more of my career ahead of me than behind me, I am still primarily judged by the individual accomplishments on my CV: the publications, grants, and conference presentations. Administrative tasks don’t “count” in that individual accounting, so it’s no wonder that I, and others at this career stage, begin to feel torn and frayed.
Despite the general gloominess of this post, the one bright spot this term is that I am thoroughly enjoying the class that I am teaching. Hopefully, I will have a chance to write some reflections on the course soon, because it is one of the things that has kept me going.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Arjendu on January 17, 2013
Greetings. I am emerging from a deanly silence to post an link to an interesting video.
Since Newton’s classical apple cart was upset by relativity and quantum theory, physicists have been seeking a theory that would unify the macroscopic and the microscopic and explain “everything” (for sufficiently small values of the word ‘explain’ and large values of the word ‘everything’).
CERN theoretical physicist and coiner of the term “theory of everything”, John Ellis, best-selling Oxford physicist Frank Close, and philosopher of science Nicholas Maxwell have a conversation about the limits of knowledge in this video.
The discussion ranges from physics to philosophy, methodological to metaphysical, with [a Standard Model t-shirt wearing] John Ellis bemoaning physics failure in devising a means of experimentally testing String Theory.
It’s fun. And it’s made/posted by a (new to me) endeavor called the Institute of Art and Ideas.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Melissa on December 17, 2012
I’m staring down the start of another term with a new class prep. I’m excited about the course I’ll be teaching, a course on materials science, energy, and the environment that counts both for the environmental studies major and the physics major . But I’m less excited about the massive amounts of time that I sink into any course that is a new prep for me. The situation got me thinking about how many times I would want to teach a course before giving it a rest.
For standard courses where I am the instructor of record, I’ve not taught any course more than three times in the 22 trimesters I’ve been at Carleton. Labs are a different story; I’ve repeated those more often. A couple of my colleagues in other departments were talking about repeating a single class six or seven times in five years. To me, that sounds like a blessing (more opportunities to refine the course, possibility for reduced prep time) and perhaps a bit of a curse (getting tired of the course, being concerned about falling into a rut).
So here’s my question — in an ideal world, how many times would you want to repeat teaching a course over a certain period of time? When would you want a break from a course? Does it matter if the course is offered every term, every year, or every other year? I loved my schedule when I taught one of my courses annually for three years in a row, but recently, I haven’t had much consistency in my teaching schedule.
My toddler offered me some course prep advice tonight: “Your students should do more art projects” When I asked if she had suggestions, she said, “Handprints with paint.” If I run out of energy for course prep soon, I may be tempted to take her advice.
Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »
Posted by Melissa on November 26, 2012
The fall term at Carleton has ended. This evening I sat down with a cup of peppermint tea, one of those brands that comes with inspirational quotes on the tag of the tea bag. Tonight’s message: The art of happiness is to serve all. Clearly this tag is not intended as a career advice for academics. I’m finishing my first term as department chair, and I’m learning that being chair is indeed about serving all — current students who are not majors, current students who are majors, faculty and staff in the department, certain administrative offices, as well as some external constituencies — and I didn’t find it a recipe for happiness. It was five weeks into the term before I had a day where I made it all the way to lunch without an interruption from someone either stopping by my office or phoning me. I suppose if someone had administrative aspirations, being department chair could be valuable, but otherwise, this position is a thankless role. I’ve been trying hard to be positive about being department chair. I tell myself the work I do as chair helps ensure the department stays healthy and focused on continuing to improve the physics education we provide to students at Carleton. And as chair, by taking care of some of the administrivia and headaches, I allow my colleagues to do their jobs well, and hopefully with fewer headaches. However, it takes a lot of effort to maintain this rosy view.
When I was still a junior faculty member, I expected that service/administrative obligations would grow after getting tenure, but becoming department chair just a year after getting tenure has shown me that I underestimated the extent of the change. Pre-tenure, colleagues both at my institution and elsewhere worked to help me protect my time so I could spend it on the things that mattered for achieving tenure. As soon as the tenure decision was made, suddenly it felt as if people had tried to protect my time pre-tenure for the express purpose of being able to ask for my time post-tenure. While I expected the increase in service/administrative roles, I had hoped that I would have more ability to choose to say yes to opportunities that interested me and no to those that didn’t. The reality is that certain service roles (department chair, for example) aren’t optional, and they demand a lot of time. Despite messages such as, “The art of happiness is to serve all,” I worry that, over time, service demands will be a recipe for my becoming unduly cranky at best or seriously burned out at worst. I have become good at turning down requests to serve, and many of the service roles I agree to are ones that are of particular interest to me, but I’ve got a ways to go before I’m happy with how I define the service portion of my job.
Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »
Posted by Melissa on October 6, 2012
I haven’t mentioned it here, but I’ve taken over as department chair this year. It’s a fine position if you don’t have anything else on your to-do list, but if that’s not the case, it adds a lot more balls to the juggling act. As a result, several items which I’ve wanted to blog about have been sitting open as tabs in my browser for weeks, but without any time to write. I’ve finally admitted to myself that I just don’t have time to blog about any of them, but I’ll mention two of them quickly.
A great blog post that hit a little too close to home. When I was in college, discussing future plans and wavering about whether to go to grad school, a trusted senior someone in my life said, “You will go to grad school, and you will be successful. Otherwise, you are just contributing to the women in science problem.” I think it was said with the best of intentions, but the statement left a permanent scar. Ever since then, with every decision I make, I am always haunted by the specter of whether my personal decisions are hurting other women. Of course, I realize it’s ridiculous. Personal decisions are just that, personal, and it is not my individual responsibility to make life choices where I push harder or choose particular paths just to prove a point about women in physics. And yet, whenever, I make decisions, I always have this niggling concern that I might make a decision that is right for me but contributes negatively to the bigger issues relevant to women in physics. I love what Jessamyn writes in her post: “Not only is it important to make decisions that will make you happy, but it’s also important to recognize that there are many ways to advocate for underrepresented groups, and many ways to lead by example. Many of them are outside the pipeline, and it isn’t a betrayal of all the women who couldn’t make it to the top to choose a different path.”
Who persists in a MOOC?
I was interested to see the demographics of those who completed edX’s Circuits and Electronics course: “80 percent of respondents said they had taken a ‘comparable’ course at a traditional university prior to working their way through Circuits & Electronics. Of that 80 percent, nearly two-thirds said the MOOC version was better than the ‘comparable’ course they claimed to already have taken.” Generally speaking, a course is easier the second time around so I’m not surprised people liked the MOOC version better. However, it’s also interesting that most of those who succeeded already had the benefit of traditional education. At least in this case, it seems like the MOOC isn’t providing a revolutionary education, but rather refreshing what had already been learned through traditional education. One aspect of MOOCs that greatly it interests me the demographics of the participants: previous educational background, socioeconomic status, gender, race, and ethnicity. I imagine that there are probably significant disparities in the demographics. As someone concerned about diversity in higher education, I think it’s important to pay attention to who might be well served and who might be left behind in the MOOC world.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Melissa on September 30, 2012
I was recently gathering some information on Carleton physics grads, and what I found highlighted what I already knew: our grads take their physics degrees and use them as foundations for diverse pathways post-Carleton. For example, physics majors in the Class of 2012 went on to graduate school in architecture, astronomy, civil engineering, earth and planetary science, electrical engineering, law, mechanical engineering, and physics. And many of our physics majors don’t go to grad school. Graduates in the past five years who have gone into the work force have gotten positions such as a Minnesota Math Corps tutor, a science teacher at a charter middle school, a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda, an engineer at Seagate, an engineer at Bentley Instruments, technical support at Epic, a developer at BlackBag Technologies, a research technician at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a research associate at Pacific Northwest National Lab, a research assistant at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, and an investment banking analyst in the Clean Technology and Renewables Group at Piper Jaffray.
The physics major opens many doors. The quantitative modeling experience, the computer programming and laboratory skills, the thoughtful approach to problem solving, these are all relevant in many different arenas. Looking at the diverse paths of our graduates, I’m always bothered by why it is still hard to sell physics as a relevant major. Part of the problem is that physics majors (with the exception of the few who get PhDs and go into academia) don’t become physicists, at least not in job title. Other majors seem to have clearer career tracks. Pre-heath students are on their way to jobs in the health professions. Computer science can provide a path to software development positions. Physics provides a clear track to ….? The answer is that physics can lead in a lot of different directions, but the physics major itself doesn’t send you in a particular direction. Student interests, experiences, and avocations in large part determine where students go after graduation. While the diversity of trajectories is a strength of the physics major, I also think that the open-ended possibilities can strike fear into the heart of an undecided student. Why risk the unknown if there are other STEM majors that can provide more clearly defined career paths? My answer to that question is why pigeonhole yourself if you can choose a major that leaves immense career flexibility. One of my favorite websites to have students visit is the Hidden Physicists page on the SPS Careers Using Physics website. Nearly ninety percent of physics majors may be hidden, but wow, they do a fascinating array of things!
Another challenge in trying to sell the physics major is how best to highlight the ways in which physics majors can make a contribution to society. When I talk with incoming Carleton students, one of the most common reasons that science-minded students express an interest in being pre-med is because of a desire to have a fulfilling career which “makes a difference.” Students I talk with really want their work to be meaningful and impact people’s lives for the better. Physics often seems impersonal and remote — the particulars of the Higgs boson are unlikely to have much impact on public health or quality of life. Nevertheless, many physics majors choose career paths that have a significant impact on both individual lives (think teachers and medical physicists) and on bigger social problems. Physicists in engineering have long done “big impact” work, although they often work behind the scenes to make circumstances significantly better for society as a whole (reliable distribution of electrical power, designing greener buildings and more efficient transportation, etc). Recently, I’ve seen many of our physics majors interested in careers in the renewable energy sector.
The question, of course, is how to get these messages out to students early, before they decide that the path of least career resistance is to take a path that is more clearly defined.
Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »
Posted by Melissa on September 9, 2012
Last academic year was a challenging one for me on a number of fronts, and by the time classes ended, I was feeling completely and totally spent. Granted, that’s a feeling that I usually have come June, but this was different. I felt like the person who I think myself to be had gone missing, and so I decided that during the summer, among all my research activities and family outings, I desperately needed some time for myself. Of course, it’s easy enough to say, “I need time for myself.” However, putting that into practice is difficult, particularly when I have two roles that can easily become all-consuming (the faculty role and the parenting role). I find that whenever I have a moment of time that I could potentially spend on myself, I often end up trying to check off one more item on my to-do list or to finish up one more household chore. Me-time rarely gets spent on me. Thus, I decided that this summer I was going to set a selfish goal – one that would do nothing to advance my career or help my family, but that would force me to do something that I wanted to do.
I wanted to choose something that was substantial enough that it would force me to change my habits, but one that wouldn’t feel like too much of a burden. I thought long and hard about what I would do, and ultimately decided that my selfish summer goal would be to read ten books between the last day of exams in the spring and the first day of classes in the fall. The books couldn’t be anything work-related, so books I read for class prep didn’t count. Why did I choose this as my goal? In part because reading for fun always feels like a guilty pleasure, one that should be put aside for folding laundry or reading journal articles. In the past few summers, I’ve been lucky if I read 5 or 6 non-work-related books. Thus making reading a priority was a genuine challenge for me. I’m happy to report, however, that today I finished my tenth book, just in the nick of time, because classes start tomorrow. The whole endeavor highlighted how bad I am at taking time for myself. I felt guilty throughout this project, worrying that I should be doing something else with my time. But I also took great pleasure in the reading that I did and the license it gave me to explore, engage, and reflect on everything from characters’ human foibles to life’s big questions.
For readers of this blog, three of the books I read might be of interest. For physics folks, Alan Lightman’s newest novel Mr. g: A Novel about the Creation is a clever, engaging account of the creation story that sits at the intersection of physics and philosophy. For those interested in women’s roles today, I highly recommend Anna Fels’ book, Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives. Andrew Delbanco’s book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, will be on my mind for quite some time to come; it’s a thought-provoking look at higher education and residential liberal arts education.
And with that, I close the door on summer for good. Onward to a new term!
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Melissa on August 27, 2012
As I mentioned earlier, I participated in a mini-MOOC about MOOCs a couple of weeks ago. I left for vacation before the week ended and never had a chance to reflect on my experience. I’ll admit I had (wrongly) thought most MOOCs were xMOOCs, doing nothing more than providing a way to replicate the sage-on-the-stage model of education and transmit it to vast audiences. Participating in the mini-MOOC opened my eyes to the possibilities of connectivist MOOCs (or cMOOCs). (If you want some background on these different types of MOOCs, check out the essay created by one of the groups within the MOOC MOOC providing an overview of the MOOC landscape.)
Even with the potential of cMOOCs, my week of participation in the mini-MOOC left me wondering if I would ever feel completely comfortable in any “massive” educational endeavor. Collaborating with 50+ other people I didn’t know to write an essay about MOOCs in Google Docs wasn’t exhilarating; it was anxiety producing. I’m a slow, reflective writer. I have to spend a lot of time thinking, testing a fragment of an idea, and then revising both the idea and the words that capture the idea. In Google Docs, watching words and concepts, even entire paragraphs, change, appear, and disappear as I tried to add my own thoughts frustrated me. I felt wholly inadequate. I also wondered how dissenting opinions would ever be heard when a group of 50+ people were writing and revising each other’s words to create a common document.
If collaborating on Google docs was unsettling, “discussions” via Twitter were even more so. Trying to engage meaningfully in 140 character snippets with people who are completely unknown was wholly unsatisfying. The constant barrage of tweets felt helter-skelter; it was too much, too fast, and without real connection or direction. The steady give and take, the seeing in someone’s eyes when they are lost, or emphatic, or playful, the sense of shared enrichment that arises from face-to-face conversations, those things were entirely missing from the on-line conversations. As one of my fellow MOOC participants noted, MOOCs favor those who are on-line extroverts, and unlike a real classroom, there’s no teacher to encourage the introverts to participate, to find creative ways to allow everyone to speak up, to actively work to make the classroom an inclusive space.
I may be the exception to the rule, but from the time I was in 7th grade, I knew I wanted to attend a small liberal arts college. The summer before 7th grade I attended a summer camp at a Big 10 university, and I walked away from the experience saying, “I never want to go here for college.” The University made me feel alone among thousands of students; my experience with the MOOC MOOC made me feel the same way. I felt overwhelmed and isolated, and I was without a coach (read teacher) to help me make the most of the experience. Did I learn something from the MOOC MOOC? You bet. Do I see potential for MOOCs in some arenas of higher education? Definitely. I can even imagine finding ways to interface some MOOCs with a traditional residential college experience. But MOOCs are not for everyone, particularly those who are on-line introverts and those who lack self-confidence or direction. I’m not yet convinced that Twitter conversations with thousands or Google Docs collaboration with hundreds can create the same connectedness and community that make small liberal arts colleges such a wonderful place to teach and learn.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: MOOCMOOC | 8 Comments »
Posted by Melissa on August 14, 2012
One of my roles this summer has involved coordinating weekly lunches for Carleton’s Clare Booth Luce (CBL) Scholars program. This is a three-year, grant-funded program supported by the Clare Booth Luce Foundation aimed at increasing the number of women computer science and physics majors at Carleton by providing early research experiences and developing a supportive cohort.
The weekly lunches are part of the effort to create a sense of community within the CBL cohort. Each week, I selected a reading that formed the basis for discussion or activities relevant to the topic at hand. I found choosing the topics for reading and discussion to be extremely difficult, in part because this program aims both to prepare the students to be successful at Carleton and also to help lay the foundation for success in the wider world beyond Carleton. And the world beyond Carleton has a lot more places where the old boys’ network is still strong and where others might judge you by your gender, not by your abilities.
Now that I’ve been at Carleton for a while, I’ve begun to see a trend. Women-in-science topics rarely come up in my discussions with current students, but fairly regularly, I get phone calls or e-mails from female alums who have found themselves in chilly grad school climates or uncomfortable work situations. I’m always happy to have conversations with alums and do what I can to support them, but I also wonder what we can do for current students so that they are better prepared when they encounter difficult situations after Carleton. I certainly don’t want to paint a doom and gloom picture for current students when, by luck of their choices and circumstances, they might never experience discrimination based on their gender. However, I also don’t want students to be blindsided when they encounter the difficult realities that still exist for some women in physics and computer science. I’m unsure of how to raise awareness of potential challenges without seeming either unnecessarily discouraging or out of step with the experiences students have had to date.
I kept coming back to that difficult balancing act when I was trying to decide on readings for the summer. Here are the topics/readings that I settled on:
Week 1: Research experience expectations. Reading: “The importance of stupidity in scientific research” by Martin Schwartz.
Week 2: Mentoring. Reading: Selections from CWIT Mentoring Tool Kit, Center for Women & Information Technology, University of Maryland Baltimore County and from the Mentoring Guide, Center for Health Leadership & Practice, Public Health Institute.
Week 3: Negotiating. Reading: Introduction and Chapter 1 from Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever.
Week 4: More on negotiating. Gender schemas. Reading: Chapter 1 from Why So Slow? by Virgina Valian.
Week 5: Gender schemas and stereotype threat. Reading: Selections from Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele.
Week 6 and 7: Career exploration. Readings: Step by Step: Your Career from Undergrad to Postdoc from ScienceCareers as well as other discipline specific web resources for CS and physics.
Week 8: Work-life balance. Reading: Peruse the Atlantic‘s on-line collection of articles on the myth of work-life balance.
Do you have favorite readings that I should have included instead of those outlined above? Do you think we should do more to try to prepare students for chilly climates they might encounter after Carleton, or do we do enough by trying to provide a supportive undergraduate environment?
Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments »