Monday, September 28, 2009

Almost Mad Today

I almost got mad today. I am traveling to Europe, and had the unfortunate experience of getting into the slowest passport control line available this morning. This is not a good thing after flying all night and only getting a couple hours of sleep. I was watching the other lanes continue forward at a much faster pace than the one I was standing in. I was committed, though, with no way to switch, knowing that switching meant going to the end of a different line and risking that one suddenly becoming slower. I was stuck. Frustrated. Tired. Grumpy.

I almost got mad. I was beginning to get all steamed up about the incompetence of the officer in the booth ahead of me. Clearly this man was a systemic obstacle to efficiency and needed to be beaten with a stick. He was delaying everyone in his line and I could see that others were visibly frustrated with his lack of processing speed. The thought was boiling up within me that he doesn’t care about us and is intentionally wasting our time. I was starting to consider him as not only incompetent but evil.

Then I realized how tired I was. I tried to stem my anger, brushing it off as just my less-than-fully-awake state. Then the thought occurred to me: he might also be near the end of his shift and running on less than full perkiness. He might have been approaching the end of his shift and in need of a break from the fast-paced scrutinization of passport after passport. I started to feel sorry for the guy and let my mind wander about the scenarios he might have been through to put him in this less-than-optimal processing pace.

When I was about fifteen people away from the front, another lane opened right next to mine. I jumped into it and, in so doing, cut the line ahead of me in half. Wouldn’t you know, my new line ground to a halt and my original line picked up. I made it up to the counter just a couple people ahead of where I would have been in the original line. The officer behind the window was not incompetent and processed me through passport control very quickly.

So, a new thought entered my mind: the original line was slow because the particular mix of people ahead of me were especially complicated to process and clear. Perhaps the delay had nothing to do with the officer at the head of the line, that they were all roughly equal in their ability, and that the delay was beyond their control. All anger within me was defused, because I realized that, in the end, I had no idea why the lanes were slow when they were.

My only conclusion is that, when I am in a situation that starts to frustrate me, I should not jump to conclusions about the cause and start blaming people. I will most likely be wrong, and if so, making a fuss would only make a fool out of myself (or worse).

Friday, September 18, 2009

Scary News Story

The death of Annie Le at a Yale laboratory (here) brings up the very real threat of violence on campus. I work at a big university in a fairly urban setting, and I am sure that on any given day, there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of graduate students working late into the night in their corner of some building.  I know that one of my female grad students prefers a shifted work schedule, getting in around noon and working until 10 pm or midnight.  That’s her choice, and I don’t have a problem with it, except that it means that she is walking home, alone, nearly every night, well past dusk (even in the summer).  It is a safe campus, but we get crime alert emails whenever something happens, and so we are all aware of the potential danger.  We have card readers on the building’s outside doors, so only those with reason to have access can get in, but there is nothing to stop the violence like that which occurred at Yale.  The charge is that it was an employee attacking another employee.  Our safeguards wouldn’t have caught this.  I doubt that such a crime could be prevented without intense (both invasive and expensive) security measures.

I guess the answer is that it is a personal choice and depends on how safe you feel and how much you really need to do what you are doing while in the building (instead of, say, on a computer at home).  We have desktops for our students, not laptops.  I could let them check out a desktop and have it at home, but then would I ever see them again before graduation?  Hmm.

How do you keep a workplace safe yet accessible?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Strange Coincidence

About a week ago I started reading the book “The Shack” by William Young. It’s this novel about a man who becomes extremely sad when his youngest daughter is abducted while they are on a camping trip together, and the police track the perp to a remote shack, where they find the truck and the girl’s dress but not the girl or the kidnapper.  Three years later, he is called back to the shack to have a very strange encounter with three very loving and generous people.  Over the course of conversing and interacting with them, he learns to understand his pain and accept his loss.  I am only halfway through the book, so I don’t know how it ends yet.  It’s well written and entertaining, and I am enjoying the break every evening to get absorbed into this man’s adventure at the shack.

Sidenote about The Shack:  I greatly dislike the Foreword, which is written from the author’s perspective and tries to convince the reader that the following story is true.  I cannot accept this premise, and my impression of the book is negatively tainted because of it.  To me, the author has spoiled an otherwise engrossing tale with the intentionally misleading deception of trying to make me believe that the events in the book really happened to someone. That is dangerous false hope and unreal expectations for others.  He should have simply left it out.  If you ever get the gumption to read this book, I encourage you to skip the Foreword.

Anyway, back to my story:  a friend from college has been battling cancer for several years, but passed away this last weekend.  She is a mother of 4, and was diagnosed with the illness during her last pregnancy (I think that was 8 years ago now, or maybe more).  I haven’t seen her in over a year, at which time she was well enough to make the trip to another mutual friend’s wedding.  Before that, it had been several years, probably since before the diagnosis, that I had last seen her and her family.  It was a slow decline with ups and downs, but never particularly good and cancer free anywhere in there.  She lived her life as well as she could, and fought the disease with all she had.  I am sad that I won’t get to see her again.  I am sad for her husband, who is a great guy full of life and overflowing with opinions.  I am sad for her children, who really only knew their mom while she was sick. 

I am not looking for a lesson from her death.  It pretty much sucks.  It is a strange coincidence, though, that I am reading a book about sadness after loss and the redemption and healing that God can give you.  Perhaps the book will help me deal with this.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Prayers for Tenure Casebook

My friend (since childhood) is up for tenure this fall.

Tenure didn’t work out so well as University #1 for him.  It was a hard blow, and no one likes to be told to move on, but I think that the culture of that college and that town wasn’t right for him anyway.  He seems to be more comfortable at University #2, and from what I hear, the administration has been treating him better than his former management.  The fit is also particularly good for his wife, as I hear that this town is an excellent location for her profession and that she has developed a well-established network of contacts. 

As with most tenure reviews, this is an up-or-out assessment of his abilities, and the future of his life at University #2 is in the balance.  He is very hopeful about his chances of tenure, but there is still that uncertainty providing a bit of stress to the start of this new school year.

Being in a humanities field, his casebook I am sure will look substantially different from mine.  Books are far more prevalent and expected on his publication list than on mine. I am sure he has topical journals in which to publish, and hopefully he has an ample stack of such papers to show for his years in the field.  In my research area, numerous peer-reviewed journal articles per year are the norm, and books before tenure are an extreme rarity. In fact, I was specifically told not to write a book too early, because it detracts from the regular and expected measures of productivity.

I can only trust that he has received good mentoring from senior faculty in his department (or others in his field elsewhere around the country), that they are advocates for him within the college, and that he has accomplished all that he needs to have done regarding teaching, service, and research.  I can only trust that others in his field beyond University #2 have a favorable impression of his contributions to the field, that they know and respect his work, and that the evaluation letters clearly reflect these positive opinions.  I can only trust that he has mentored one or more graduate students through thesis or dissertation completion, that these former students have favorable impressions of their time with him at University #2, and that they will adequately voice their opinions back to the casebook committee.

So, I hope that you will join me in praying for the success of his tenure casebook, and should it not work out for him, to ask for God to give him the courage and perseverance to move on with his career, wherever it might take him and his family.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Bad Advisors

To go along with the “how many grad students” question from the last post, there is a discussion on FSP’s blog about Bad Advisors (BAs). I hope that I am not a BA.  I hope that just being aware that there is such a thing as good and bad advising is half the struggle to avoiding the BA label.  I might be an unintentionally bad advisor (UBA) for some of my students.  I don’t know.  I try to err on the side of over-advising, sometimes at the expense of my own first-author publication production.  This summer has not been good for paper writing, but I have been helping others get out papers and proposals.  I did get to code for a while this summer, and that was fun.  I don’t think I could do this with 10+ PhD students at once, or even 5 grad students.  I would have no time for myself and my own pursuits.  I think that I would be in constant manager mode and wouldn’t get to actually do any science directly.  It would all be vicariously through my employees.  That’s not what I want to do, though.  I am still very interested in coding and making plots and spending time with a problem, and I don’t want to simply be one who gets the money for others to able to do these things.  So, I will not grow my group too fast.  For one, that takes a lot of money, but for another, I want to be able to (very slowly) transition into the permanent manager position.  I am pretty happy with the state of things right now, although I would have liked to have had more time this summer to write a paper or two.  But, I do not regret my time advising others.  This is productive time for me, just in a different direction, and I am not bitter about it.  Just a little nostalgic for the days when I did everything myself.  No, not really.