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A professor by any other name October 26, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, feminism, societal commentary, teaching.
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I decided that after my previous teaching experiences, creating a sense of distance between myself and my students was prudent.  I never understood this from the student perspective (likely because most of my teachers tended to the formal side so it was seldom an issue), but as a professor, I definitely see an advantage.  I want to help the students and be approachable, but being approachable doesn’t mean I want to be their friend and I also expect them to treat me professionally.  In the past, not all students have been courteous, to say the least.  Even when I started out more formally and then loosened up, it seemed like the loosening up was a bad idea because it was taken as a sign that I’d stopped having boundaries.

When I was in undergrad and later doing my master’s degree, I took several classes from a particular professor.  This professor had this quirky habit of calling all students either Mr. or Ms. LastName.  It was strange, particularly since, as a Quaker, I really shy away from using titles as much as I can.  It grew on me, though, and created this sense that you were being treated like the professional colleague he intended you to become once you graduated.  (I felt bad for him, though, when my last name kept changing because of a divorce and later a remarriage.  At some point, he said, “What am I supposed to call you?!”)

I decided to experiment and, with my former math prof as inspiration, I have been addressing all of my students as Mr. LastName, despite it being somewhat uncomfortable. (I have no female students, but I intend to call any I may have Ms. LastName.)  I also said specifically that I expected to be referred to as Professor LastName or just Professor.

While it has taken a bit of getting used to, I’m starting to get the hang of it.  When discussing students with faculty or administration, though, I have to use both first and last name since others will often refer to them by their first names.  This leaves me confused as I will have no idea about whom they are talking.

On the flip side, I don’t know for sure how the students refer to me when talking amongst themselves.  I have an idea, though, because I received an email from a student addressed to me by my first name.

*deep sigh*

I wasn’t sure what to do about this lapse and I needed to respond to the email promptly, so ignored the address, although I suspect I shouldn’t have and won’t in the future.  I figured I would check with my colleague, who goes by Dr. LastName.

I popped into his office the next day and asked, “How do you deal with students who refer to you by your first name?”

He cocked his head to the side, thought for a moment, and responded, “They never have.”

It truly is amazing to me that in several years of teaching, no one has ever referred to him by his first time, yet I can’t make it three months without it happening.

Mercurial biology text October 3, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, science, younger son.
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Younger son was reading through some biology homework when he suddenly pipes up, “Mom!  Did you know you need mercury in your blood?”

I was of course quite shocked at his proclamation because that just didn’t make any sense.  I asked him to read me the sentence.  It said something about how the blood’s pressure needs to remain at xx (where xx is some number I don’t remember) mmHg.  “And Hg is mercury!”

While I can see where he would get that impression, this instigated a long conversation about how we measure air pressure.  It also made me wonder why they don’t bother explaining units before they start using them. I suppose it may be because they don’t think like younger kids, who could easily read something into it that an adult would never have thought of.

I’m just glad he thought to mention it before he went and got a hold of some mercury.

Answering the sexism in STEM question September 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, feminism, science, societal commentary.
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I’m not a big fan of career panels for women in science, at least for those in college and above.  However, panels of women in STEM careers for high school students and younger, I think, are important, primarily because they show young women that there are other women who are scientists and mathematicians and engineers, even if they do nothing else.  Being able to identify with a panelist because of sex/gender is going to go a long way to breaking down stereotypes.

I was involved in one such panel over the past weekend.  I was one of three women who has a career using math outside of being a mathematician, and we were talking to high school students about our careers in math-intensive fields.

I feel awkward when the question comes up (and it always does) about whether one encounters sexism as a woman in a STEM field.  I don’t want to say anything discouraging, nor do I want to lie.  I also get nervous, worrying that I may be the only one who has had to deal with it.  I was fortunate this weekend in that all three of us seemed to have a range of experience dealing with this, but we were all able to say that it was not the majority of the time.  Yes, we told them, you’re going to run into it, but it’s primarily a handful of individuals who are that way.  Most of the time, you’ll be treated as respectfully, as a colleague.  And unlike in the past, if you find you’re dealing with more of it than you want to, there are a lot more opportunities to find a career in greener, less sexist pastures.  We all agreed the situation had improved significantly in the past twenty years.

That being said, I would really like to stand in front of a group like that and say, no, it doesn’t matter and you won’t see it.  I suspect I will be waiting a long time, but I keep hoping.

The first week September 5, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, engineering, work.
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I finished my first week teaching in my new institution, and I have to say it was very strange.

I started college at a small university, but it had twice as many graduate students as undergrads, and it was in the middle of a large metropolitan area.  While the campus wasn’t huge, it was relatively busy.  I finished my undergrad at a mid-size state school, but the department I was in was tiny.  I had very small upper-level classes but most of my generals were in very large classes, one even having about 500 students. For my MS, I switched to one of the largest departments, which was a jolt.  While my classes weren’t huge (15-20 per class in the grad program), there were a lot of people around and pace and flavor of the department was far less intimate.  There were people in the building nearly 24 hours. For the PhD, I was in a very large state university in a big city but in a small department.  Even so, my classes typically had at least 20 people in them.  At all of these places, it seemed like, at least during the school year, the pace was hectic and there were a lot of people always around.  I always felt like I was busy.

Now I’m in a new department (I’m one of two faculty) in a small liberal arts college in a small town.  The feel is completely different.  The classes are smaller, and the students always seem to be off at class.  The campus quad is usually quiet, unlike the last place (the really big university in the middle of city).  At the big school, people would eat lunch while listening to the Christian hippy-looking fellow standing on a ladder in front of the library, preaching fire and brimstone or playing inspirational music and singing slightly out of tune.  Other students would be playing frisbee or football.  Now I mostly see people walking from one building to the other (usually on the sidewalks!), with the occasional line coming out of the student center because everyone decided to grab lunch at the same time.

While I’m kind of surprised by the quietness, I am also enjoying the lack of everything feeling so hectic.  My colleagues generally seem to be laid back, the students are mostly pleasant and polite.  Everyone is getting things done, but no one seems to be running around all frantic and the campus doesn’t feel like a beehive.

Of course, it’s early in the semester; I’ll have to revisit this train of thought in December.

Brand new professor  August 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, teaching, Uncategorized.
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I finished my first week as a new professor. It was exhausting. I spent most of the week drinking from the firehose of information about my new institution. A colleague says every institution does the same thing to new faculty and he doesn’t understand why, but I think I do: it certainly creates empathy for the students. Going to college is at every bit as stressful as being a new faculty. 

The hardest part for me is just being around unfamiliar people all day. While my colleagues are almost entirely warm and welcoming, my introversion was severely stressed and I really needed down time in evening with no people. As much as I don’t like the commuting arrangement, I greatly appreciated the much-needed down time it afforded me.  I also was short on time for running (also good stress relief), so I tried to tell myself that the multiple flights of stairs I was taking daily to reach my office were an adequate substitute.

I finally met some students yesterday. Many of our students are athletes, and I saw an unexpected and very interesting side benefit to this: 2/3 of my advisees were minorities.  I am very excited by the possibility that there may be enough students that they won’t feel out of place. Unfortunately, there are no women, though I think we should start a SWE chapter anyway.

My final experience this week as a professor was with one of my advisees. We shook hands and, after he sat down, saw the hand sanitizer on my desk and asked to use some. I said feel free, but then became worried that I should be using some, too.

Returning to the land of the employed June 28, 2016

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I’m so excited! I finally have something to post about!  And it’s not just cat and dog pictures!  Or discussions about comic book characters!

I will be starting a new job in the fall as an engineering professor at a small liberal arts college.

I’ll be honest: no one is more surprised about this than me.  Until recently, I hadn’t ever thought about liberal arts colleges as a possible career choice.  Over the past couple of years, however, I’ve gotten the sense that I don’t fit well into a lot of research universities.  Despite a lot of places saying they wan’t people who do interdisciplinary research, it’s become pretty plain that they still want you to have all your degrees in one field.  Grant reviewers don’t like grants that are too far outside their expertise, either, which makes it hard to get funding.

All of that pushed me to start thinking about liberal arts colleges, particularly since I have a strong interest in education and pedagogy.  That ended up being a good decision.

The program is brand new, so I’ll be setting up some classes and labs from scratch.  While that’s daunting, it’s also exciting, especially because of the educational aspect.  Designing classes around a student-centered, hands-on approach is going to be easier (I hope) than trying to remake everything.  I hope my students will be okay being guinea pigs.  I’m certainly okay with getting to play with lab equipment.  The classes will initially be pretty small, but I don’t think they’ll ever get huge.  (I’ve been informed the largest classes at the school are around 50-60 students, and those aren’t common.)

The down side is that the school isn’t in town, so I’m in the process of finding a buying a new place to live.  It IS close enough that I’ll be able to come home frequently, but a little too far for a daily commute.  I am therefore also in the process of trying to teach the younger offspring how to cook…well, something other than mac and cheese or toast.

Anyway, the pace of life has definitely picked up, but that’s a good thing.

Post-doc season June 17, 2016

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It appears to be that time of year again.  My mailbox has been filling with CVs from people who want me to give them a post-doc.  Some of them are actually in electromagnetics, so it makes sense why they would contact me.  (Some…but not most.)

This year, however, I was contemplating handling it a bit differently than previous years.  Given I’m not currently employed, I can’t really offer them a post-doc.  (I also couldn’t when I was employed, either, but humor me.)  This year, therefore, I have contemplated writing them back to say I’m in the same boat they are and that they should let me know if they come across anything open.

I don’t imagine I’d hear back from them.

I also can’t imagine myself sending that particular email, either.  But it is funny to contemplate their possible reaction.

Octopi make better teachers June 9, 2016

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I was doing a presentation yesterday that involves drawing a diagram on the board.  It also involves holding equipment up at the board, so, since I’m not an octopus, it’s something that I need a couple people to help me with.  (Note to self: grow tentacles.)

I’ve done this particular activity before, but the space I had to work with was larger.  Yesterday, there was a permanent projector screen in the front of the room and a smaller whiteboard on the side rather than a very long white board with a pull-down screen like I was more used to dealing with.

In order to do the activity, I had to crowd in next to the white board along with two other people.  The small space was difficult to work in and some of the equipment wasn’t working as well as it should’ve because of how close everything was.  As we were constructing the diagram, we got to the point of the big reveal and one of the people helping me said, “No way!”

I laughed because her reaction was so awesome.  Then I realized that no one else could see what was going on because we were all blocking the board.

Doh!

Everyone was able to see it when we were finished, but I didn’t see the same reaction that the person helping me with the diagram gave, and that was a bit of a bummer.  I am hoping the attendees were still surprised by what they saw, but it felt a bit like that moment when you tell a joke and nobody gets it.

I guess this is one case where technology got in the way of teaching.  Or maybe it was my lack of tentacles.

Annoying parenting advice May 16, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in personal, societal commentary, younger son.
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A couple days ago, for some odd reason, I came across a LOT of parenting advice online.  The funny thing was, so much of it was contradictory.  Half of it was, “pay attention to your kids and have rules and structure,” and the other half was, “Let your kids make mistakes and learn from them.”

I have to laugh because I think the approach you use as a parent is probably somewhere between these two extremes…or maybe sometimes one extreme is appropriate and, at other times, you want to swing to the other extreme.  There is no ‘one size fits all’ style of parenting: our parenting has to be as unique as our kids and, as the adult, we need to be the ones who adapt to the situation.

Let’s take an example: my younger son was a climber.  Within about a week of learning to walk, he was climbing.  At 13 months, the kid could kick my ass at climbing anything, due in part to the fact that he hadn’t developed a healthy fear of heights, and I have an overdeveloped one.  I’m seriously in awe of his climbing skills, especially now that he’s gotten into a bit of rock climbing.  How much climbing I let him do when he was younger depended on where he was doing it.  If he was climbing on my exercise bike to sit down, I didn’t worry about it.  However, sometimes he liked to stand up and try climbing the handle bars.  In that situation, I would hover so that I could catch him if he fell, and if he got too high and/or unstable, I’d take him off and say he’d gone past his limit.  If he was climbing a very low rock wall at the local shopping mall with big pads underneath to cushion any falls, I’d sit back and do some reading.  If he was climbing the 8-foot wall and the playground surrounded by pea gravel, you better believe I was standing there so that I could catch him if he did lose his grip (which never happened, though there was once a bad incident with a trampoline).

Another thing I learned was to try to mute my own reactions to situations and watch the kids reactions when they got hurt.  I basically would ask if they were okay and then let them tell me how they felt about it.  Sometimes they would get up and dust themselves off while other times they would grab on to me and start sobbing.  If they were crying, I let them cry.  Maybe they weren’t physically hurt, but they will cry if they get very scared as a reaction to something bad happening, just like most adults do.  It’s perfectly okay for a kid to cry and ask a parent for reassurance in that situation: emotional hurts are just as real as physical ones.  Of course, you also need to get them to learn to talk, even if they are upset, and explain what’s wrong.  (If the event was particularly stressful, after things were done, I would need to take break and have a good cry myself just to get it out of my system.  Sometimes parents do it, too.)

I don’t believe in letting kids do things completely independently so that they can “learn from their mistakes.”  Sometimes kids DON’T learn from their mistakes, or the path they choose ends up resulting in just as bad an outcome.  I do think it’s reasonable to let them fail, though, and then let them know that if they’d like some ideas on how to handle it better, you’re always there for advice.  People in general are good at realizing they’ve made a mistake but they’re not always so good at figuring how to do better next time, and I think it’s unrealistic to expect kids to figure it out without a little guidance from people with a bit more life experience.  (Of course, they have to be open to hearing about that experience.)

The gist of this is that you have to do what works for you and your kid and there’s no “right way” to parent.  One tactic that works one time may not work another, and you’ve got to learn how much space to give your kids.  It’s a balancing act that takes practice, and you’re going to make mistakes yourself.  Any article that tells you that they’ve discovered the best way to deal with their kids is taking all the nuance out of parenting.

Older son, dream interpreter… April 28, 2016

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The older kid has strange dreams which he tells me about often.  I, on the other hand, usually don’t get enough sleep to remember my dreams, but I did this morning and decided to tell him about it.  Mostly, I was curious if it would weird him out.

In my dream, Jon Snow (from Game of Thrones) was walking around my yard with a metal detector.  I thought it was strange but he wasn’t hurting anyone, so I went to bed without calling the police.  However, I woke up the next morning and discovered he’d tried to break into the house.  I could tell this because the door knob, which was some sort of strange Buddha statue thing, had been chipped at with a chisel.

I told the older son that I was sure there was some deep inner meaning, but I wasn’t sure what it was.  Maybe my recent spate of bird watching had gone from watching grackles hunting for food in the yard to a ‘crow’ looking for treasure?

“I know,” he replied. “Watching too much Game of Thrones will chip away at your inner peace.”

I’m going to go with that.  Maybe it’s a good thing I have to wait a week between episodes.

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