“I’m busy” is a euphemism July 22, 2014Posted by mareserinitatis in education, family, grad school, personal, work.
Tags: children, dissertation, family, part-time, schedule, work, work-life balance
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I’ve read a couple articles about how we all get caught up in being so busy. A lot of them talk about how we need to escape the busyness spiral. Xykademiqz expressed frustration with people who are always busy.
I guess I’m coming at it from a different angle.
I’ve come to realize that the phrase “I’m busy” is just a polite way of saying, “My priorities are different from yours.” That is, the requested action is more important to the person asking than the person who is supposed to perform the action. Particularly relevant to my personal situation, it’s also a way to avoid saying, “I need time to work on my thesis.”
Because I’m starting to find that pretty much nobody cares if you need time to work on that.
“Aren’t you done with that yet?”
“You sure have a lot of time off.”
“I’m sure you can do that some other time.”
“Can’t you put it off for just one day?”
Except I’ve been asked to put it off more days than I even have available to push it off from. As much as I hate telling people I’m busy, I hate even more that people won’t respect my schedule. Part of the issue is that I am technically only part time at my job. If you’ve ever had to work part time at a job without a very explicit schedule, you can forget that. People want things done on their schedule, and when you’re gone you’re taking “time off.” Apparently raising two kids and a PhD is “time off.” I’m jealous of those people who actually get to take vacations on their time off.
A lot of times the outright rejection of working on a dissertation isn’t verbalized. Kids, in particular, really don’t get that you have other things to do besides take care of their needs night and day. Not that I can blame them as I sure wouldn’t mind if my mom showed up to clean my house once in a while. (I know, Mom…you’re busy, too.)
Admittedly, doing all of this is a choice. It’s just unfortunate that a lot of people don’t respect that choice. It’s particularly frustrating when people want you to do things that they’re capable of doing but are “too busy” to do themselves. It seems that rather than get into a verbal sparring match with them about how they disagree with my priorities, it’s just easier to say, “I’m busy.”
I walk the line June 24, 2014Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, homeschooling, older son.
Tags: education, gifted, gifted education, high school, homeschooling, homework, older son, perfectionism
I’ve been watching the older son grappling with his courses for the past year. He was taking courses through an independent study organization to finish up some credits he needs to enter college. I didn’t feel comfortable with some of these (especially literature classes), so we decided to go this route.
In doing this, I’ve discovered that the older son has a deadly combination of issues: ADHD and perfectionism. I didn’t quite understand how the two fed into each other, but I can definitely see it now.
The older son also had the disadvantage of not working in the classes with peers. The first few he did were in print rather than online. He would struggle for days to complete a single assignment, and it didn’t make sense to me at first.
Another thing I found odd was how one of his teachers was initially very abrupt with him. It didn’t take long before she had completely changed her tune and was being incredibly nice and encouraging, which I thought was odd.
The second set of classes have been online and part of the assignments involved discussing things in a forum, so the student could see what the other students had submitted. This was an eye-opening experience for me. It also helped me make sense of his teacher’s dramatic change in behavior.
After watching him and seeing what other students have submitted, I realized three things:
1 – He can easily and quickly finish things that are simple.
2 – When things appear to be more difficult and/or time-consuming, he has difficulty concentrating and finds himself unable to stay on task.
3 – Part of the reason things are difficult and/or time-consuming is because he has seriously high expectations for himself that are way beyond what is often required.
I’m not saying he doesn’t have ADHD, because he most certainly does. We tried for years to forego medication. One day, he came to me and said he couldn’t even concentrate on projects he wanted to do for fun, so we opted at that point to look at something to help. (He does take meds, but it’s the lowest dose that’s effective.)
However, in homeschooling him, neither of us had a reference for what a ‘typical’ high schooler should be doing in his classes. He would give me an assignment, and we would spend a lot of time revising it. He worked very hard, but progress was slow. In one or two cases, he would hand things in half done because of lack of time.
What surprised me is that even the items he handed in half done or that were rough drafts often came back with exceptional grades. I remember one assignment full of rough drafts of short essays which he aced. I couldn’t figure it out.
The problem is that both of us really expect a lot out of him, and I learned, after seeing work that other students were doing, that it was likely too much. Far too much. While he was going into a detailed analysis of similarities because characters from two different novels set in two completely different cultural and temporal reference frames, it appears his fellow students who likely are trying their hardest, are writing something much more simplistic. They are being told to elaborate, and he’s being told to eschew obfuscation.
The thing that has me concerned is that college is around the corner, and I worry that he’s going to continue to hold himself to those standards, even when it is so obviously working against him. He struggles with the idea that it’s better to just hand something in, even if incomplete (by his standards), than to turn it in late, though perfect.
A lot of perfectionists deal with this. I have told him that it’s not a bad trait, but that he needs to save it for the things that are really important to him. If he wants to write the Great American Novel that people will pore over and debate and analyze, that is the time to be a perfectionist. If he’s handing in an assignment that fulfills the requirements laid out by the teacher, who likely will spend ten minutes skimming the entry, being a perfectionist is really not going to help. He needs to learn to walk that line. To some extent, we all do.
Math is a #firstworldproblem June 1, 2014Posted by mareserinitatis in education, math, teaching.
Tags: math, teaching
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I was recently having a conversation with a friend about teaching when she launched into a complaint about students not understanding logarithms. The conversation became somewhat off putting because this friend fell into the trap of equating mathematical knowledge with intelligence. A lot of people do it: English majors will imply one is an idiot if one doesn’t appreciate the succinct stoicism supplied by Hemingway, for example. (And I use this example because I’ve been on the receiving end of such criticism: I can’t stand Hemingway, and it was torture having to relive it when the older son was reading and explaining Old Man and the Sea for one of his classes.) Hemingway hating aside, many of us tend to use certain sets of knowledge as a reflection of intelligence, and that’s rather simplistic (and not all that intelligent of us).
The reason this particular discussion irritated me is because there is a level of classism that seems to go hand-in-hand with assumptions about mathematical literacy. While being mathematically literate is a good thing, the reality is that I’ve met very mathematically illiterate folks who were able to navigate through life with no problems. Not knowing logarithms didn’t hinder them professionally or personally. Not knowing logarithms was no indicator of their intelligence. Not knowing logarithms didn’t stop them from appreciating, or at least tolerating, Hemingway.
In my experience, math illiteracy often has a basis in background. Kids whose parents are highly educated and/or wealthy often have a greater chance of both being exposed to advanced math concepts as well as being able to use such concepts more proficiently. In my classes, I’ve noticed a huge problem: kids from larger, urban schools and who aren’t minorities seem to be more likely to stick with engineering than either minority students or those from rural backgrounds. Kids who have engineers in their family are more likely to stick with it, as well. While this isn’t a surprise, and there’s been a lot of explanation as to why this is so, I suspect exposure to and comfort with math concepts is a big factor. Not only are they already feeling at a disadvantage because they are having to start farther behind their peers in the curriculum progression, they are often advised to change majors because their lack of math implies they aren’t cut out for the rigors of a technical profession. I’ve heard about this happening to my students as well as it happening to me. (I was once told that I should never have been accepted to college because I didn’t know Euler’s formula giving the trigonometric form for imaginary numbers.)
Living through those types of experiences has made me go out of my way to ensure that my kids have an excellent background in math before entering college. At the same time, because I’ve made a point to provide that level of education, I’ve become aware of many kids who don’t have those opportunities. There are a lot of bright kids who are forced to stick with grade level instruction despite the fact it’s obvious they’d benefit from acceleration. And then there are the kids for whom rigorous instruction and acceleration aren’t possible because it’s beyond their parents’ means and ability.
Back to my friend, it was hard to convince her that these kids weren’t stupid, and she seemed unwilling to accept that there wasn’t something wrong with the world that kids who don’t understand logarithms can actually go to college. I apparently couldn’t convince her that they’d be okay and maybe they just needed a bit more guidance to assimilate into the world of mathematical literacy. Perhaps we should’ve discussed literature instead.
A Rite (Triangle) of Passage May 13, 2014Posted by mareserinitatis in education, family, gifted, homeschooling, math, older son, teaching, younger son.
Tags: homeschooling, learning, learning styles, math, pythagorean theorem, visual-spatial, younger son
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The younger son recently started his pre-algebra class. Somehow, this has made math a bit better. I think the fact that it has algebra in the title makes him feel very accomplished and that, in turn, has made him more enthusiastic about math.
The other day, he was doing some of his homework, and the lecture was confusing to him. I listened to the lecture and then said, “It makes more sense if you draw a picture.” He responded that, “Pictures always help me learn better. I guess the math program doesn’t realize that some of us are visual learners.” I was both amused and quite stunned. I think I’ve been discussing educational theory a bit too much at the dinner table. I can tell he’s listening to us.
Tonight, he hit a milestone. He called Mike over, and I followed, so he could ask us how to pronounce “pythagorean.” He was sure he’d heard us talking about it before (yeah, we discuss this stuff around the dinner table), and he wanted to be sure that was what it was.
“Oh, wow!” I said. “You’re doing the Pythagorean Theorem. That’s awesome!” Suddenly, there was an impromptu round of cheering and high-fiving. The older son even came over and gave his little brother a big hug, saying, “Woo hoo! The Pythagorean Theorem is awesome.”
As the lecture progressed, it reiterated the terminology, focusing on right triangle legs and hypotenuse. Given I’ve had ZZ Top in my head, I had to immediately sing, “She’s got legs! She has a hypotenuse!” I wasn’t able to come up with much more, though.
Yes, I have to admit that I realized how odd it was, in retrospect. We were having a celebration that younger son had made it to the Pythagorean Theorem, and we were all making a huge deal about it.
But younger son didn’t think so. He thought it was awesome and giggled continuously for the next few minutes. I guess he likes having a math cheer team.
Newspaper nullification April 29, 2014Posted by mareserinitatis in education, writing.
Tags: caltech, college, journalism, newspaper
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Back in the dark ages, i.e., my first year of college, I was elected with four other people to be an editor of the school paper. It was an interesting experience and solidified my interest in writing. (I even spent some time as a journalism major!)
At the end of the year, I was responsible for putting together a flyer to send out to the incoming freshman. It was supposed to let them know about the newspaper and inform them how to become involved, if they were interested. I put together a traditional letter, very similar to the packet of letters that I received before arriving at the school. However, I decided that was sufficiently boring, so I also put together a collage, pasting various clippings, pictures and other things that had actually been printed in the paper during the previous school year. I photocopied it onto the back of the letter and was set to go.
Admittedly, I was a freshman in college and didn’t have the best taste. Also, we had no journalistic standards. Regardless, my choices were apparently not appreciated and the collage was pulled. There were comments about scaring the parents of potential incoming students. It made no sense to me as these were things we’d actually published at one point or another. If they were freaked out by the stuff in the paper, then obviously they hadn’t been at pre-frosh weekend.
So much for journalistic freedom of speech. (I know…apples and oranges.)
That happened almost exactly 20 years ago. Thanks to the internet, I can put this out in public so all those poor freshman from the class of ’98 can see what they were missing out on.
So why do I bring it up now? Because I found it the other day and took a good hard look at it. Aside from it being a fairly interesting trip down memory lane (and a bit of a time capsule to boot), I pondered what I would do if my son, who will be entering college next fall, received something like this.
I have to admit that I’m baffled. It was certainly goofy, but I still don’t understand what the big deal was. And if my son received something like this, I might actually be a little amused. I still think it’s more interesting that that stupid, boring letter.
Or maybe I’m just a warped parent.
(ETA: I suppose there is one circumstance where I might be concerned. If my son were going to be a journalism major, I’d probably be recommending other schools.)
Responsive regardless April 24, 2014Posted by mareserinitatis in education, feminism, research, work.
Tags: academia, discrimination, racism, sexism, students
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NPR did an overview of a study showing that there is a bias in academia against minorities and women. The study looked at response rates by professors to solicitations by potential students to meet. The letters were identical except for the names attached. They found that women and minorities received a different response rate than names that appeared to belong to white males. They also found that the bias was greater when the faculty were at prestigious private schools or in fields that are more financially lucrative.
My response: “Well, Duh!”
In the comments to the article, some people were complaining about how many letters they get, particularly from Indian and Chinese students. How could they be expected to answer every. single. one?!
While I admit I’m not inundated with such letters, I have gotten several. As one of the other commenters mentioned, form letters are great for dealing with these, and I pretty much do that. I also use an additional filter: “I currently don’t have funding for an additional student, but if you want to discuss what you’re interested in, we could look into avenues to fund such a project.”
It’s amazing how I never hear anything back.
But you know, I always do respond. And I am hoping one of these days that I get a response back.
A filtered education March 3, 2014Posted by mareserinitatis in education, homeschooling, math, older son, physics, science, societal commentary, teaching, younger son.
Tags: light, older son, physics, science, science education, teaching, younger son
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The older son is a lot of fun. Despite his statements that he has no desire to go into science, he seems to get and make a lot of science jokes. I know he’s not a scientist, but I feel comfortable that he’s scientifically literate. As he was homeschooled, I’m feeling pretty proud of myself.
I’m more anxious about the younger son, though. This weekend, he brought home his science homework, which focused on optics. The kids were studying filters, and one of the questions asked about what kind of light would you see if you shined a flashlight through a blue filter and then a red one. I asked him what he saw, and he said nothing. Unfortunately, he was told that he saw nothing because the flashlights just weren’t bright enough, but that what he should have seen was purple.
I’m pretty sure that if I had ever been bombarded with gamma rays in the past, I would’ve turned into She-Hulk at that very moment and started smashing things. Fortunately (or unfortunately, if being She-Hulk happens to be a goal of yours), that didn’t happen.
I find it infuriating that, throughout my years of homeschooling older son and teaching younger son math, I have constantly been questioned about my ability to teach them. The implication has always been that I may have a degree, but they are experts on teaching. In fact, this particular teacher attempted to take me to task earlier this year about the younger son’s math curriculum…the same teacher who apparently doesn’t understand that light and pigments work completely differently.
After I managed to calm down, I explained that light filters are like sieves, except that they only let one size of particle pass through: nothing bigger can pass through the holes, but nothing smaller can, either. After this explanation, the younger son was able to correctly explain that the reason he saw no light from his flashlight is that the two filters together had blocked all the light.
I’m going to be watching very carefully to see what kinds of scores he’s getting on his answers and whether the teacher realizes she made a mistake. This was very disappointing. There was a new science curriculum introduced this year, one which I was very excited about. The focus was supposed to be on hands-on, problem-based learning, which is great for science. Despite that, it seems that younger son’s science education may be lacking. What good does it do to have a top of the line science education curriculum (or math…or anything else) when our teachers don’t understand what they’re teaching? And how is it that these same teachers can justify questioning the ability to teach material that some of us understand far better than they do?
To borrow or not to borrow… February 6, 2014Posted by mareserinitatis in education, homeschooling, older son.
Tags: college, finances, student loans
Some of you may remember that, about a year ago, I took the boys on a big tour of colleges. I wanted the older boy to see what his options were and make an informed decision when it came to college. (I have to admit that this was a result of the fact that I only was able to visit one college before choosing, and I felt like I would have made a better choice if I’d been able to see others.) The older boy surprised me when, late last year, he informed me of his decision to live at home and go to college locally.
To be rather blunt, I was disappointed. I felt like he could go to a much better college if he chose. However, he said that he was nervous about starting college and moving out and basically jumping from being a high schooler to an adult all at once. I was surprised at this, but it really did make sense. Obviously, I wasn’t going to try to force him to go someplace else for school.
(I was also amused because, when I was his age, I deliberately chose to apply to colleges that were as far away from home as physically possible. This is how one goes from North Dakota to Los Angeles.)
I’m now even more convinced that this is a good decision. The older boy started a part-time job. We sat down and ran the numbers and determined that his income from the job would pay about half of his tuition and give him some spending money. Because of the hours, he can also work another job over the summer and probably make up the difference in tuition costs.
Finally, he will likely start as a sophomore because of all of the college credit he has earned or will earn through CLEP exams.
Based on this, he can likely get through school in three years and come out potentially debt-free because he will be able to pay his tuition himself. When I look at how much he would have had to go into debt to earn his degree at the other schools we looked at, I have to admit that this is a pretty intelligent way to go.
The one reservation I had about this is that I felt like he needed to get out of the house. I don’t want to stifle him by living at home all through college. As I was pondering this toward the end of the semester, I had a speaker come to my class and discuss the study abroad program at the school. I was surprised at how affordable the program is. I brought a brochure home for older son, and we discussed it. Rather than transferring to another school later, like he initially thought, he’s going to try to go abroad once or twice. That way he can get the experience of not only visiting another school but another country. Even with this, he can still probably get through school without any debt.
I’m surprised how much the financial aspect of this has changed my perspective. Maybe because I and other people I know are still paying off student loans. I’m curious what my readers would say to their kids if they were facing the same choice.
99 bottles of…oops January 28, 2014Posted by mareserinitatis in education, physics, science.
Tags: boy scouts, pascal's law, physics, science, Scientists, teaching, video
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Yesterday, I was helping guide some cub scouts (specifically webelos) through their scientist achievement. One of the things we had to discuss was Pascal’s law. Unfortunately, the instruction set on this was pretty limited: read and discuss. That, to me, means they likely wouldn’t understand it at all, so I felt like a demo was in order.
I decided to demonstrate the pressure change in a beer bottle. The concept is simple: fill an empty bottle with a non-compressible fluid (so water works, air won’t) and tap on the open end with a rubber mallet or even your hand. Of course, you want to do this over a bucket because the sudden change in pressure causes the bottle to break at the weakest point, usually the seam along the bottom, and spill it’s contents.
I did this demo for the first time in front of the kids. (I had ONE bottle of beer. No, I didn’t imbibe in front of them…I used it to bake bread.) It worked like a charm. If I didn’t trust physics so much, I wouldn’t have been okay trying it cold like that.
If you don’t have a beer bottle handy and would like to see this demo, there’s a good video on YouTube:
Because you’re worth it December 16, 2013Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, grad school, research, writing.
Tags: advising, advisor, budget, funding, proposals
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I’ve gotten behind on blog reading, but I found a post by FSP from a couple weeks ago asking if grad students know what they’re worth.
I have a reasonably good idea of how much I cost as a grad student. I knew, at a minimum, I could throw my paycheck and tuition together. Also, after writing several proposals of my own, this has come to my attention once or twice. On one of my most recent proposals, I had a collaborator from a completely different field, and he needed a grad student to complete his research. I was rather stunned that this non-STEM grad student would make nearly half what a grad student in my field (well, either of them) typically makes. I’m glad I didn’t go into that particular field.
I am also aware that most STEM grad students are also cheap if you look at how much they could make going into industry rather than grad school. Let’s face it: tuition and a paycheck typically still doesn’t add up to a full-time paycheck + benefits + taxes…at least in one of my fields. (I’ll add that I’m not counting expenses for equipment use because, unless the student wrote the grant and is running the project, that’s the cost of running a project and not with having a student. The PI would still have that expense if s/he were performing the research him- or herself.) If money is the only thing you’re concerned about, how much you cost in grad school can be a bit disheartening when compared to your worth. On the other hand, knowing how much a PI typically gets for grants, the student is likely one of the more expensive items on the budget.
It surprises me, however, that this isn’t something most PIs discuss up front with their grad students. I understand that most people don’t get the opportunity to put together a proposal in grad school. It took me a while to get that because my husband, upon getting approval for his PhD project from his grad committee, sat down with his advisor and wrote it up for NSF. That was something he did even before he got deeply into his research. I had the erroneous impression that this was something pretty much everyone did on their way to getting a PhD. I have found out since then that this scenario may have been a somewhat unique case.
In reading the blogosphere over the past few years, I have frequently seen comments by professors about their students not understanding how expensive they are. It makes me wonder if some of that irritation is due to a lack of communication and would be alleviated by sitting down with the student and walking them through the process of writing a proposal and budget. Perhaps it’s naive, but I’m inclined to think it would help the student better understand the constraints, particularly financial, that their advisor may have.