Sabbatical: I think I’m doing it wrong?

I’ve been on sabbatical for the Spring 2018 semester, which is drawing to a close with 2 more days of classes. I still have summer, but I’m feeling this immense sense of panic that is somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, I look at my list of research things and I feel like I’ve hardly made a dent. On the other hand, I don’t feel like I took enough time to relax and reset. When I’ve talked to colleagues about sabbatical, I hear both “oh, I got so much research/writing done!” and “oh, I relaxed on the beach and traveled and I feel like a whole new person!” This is why every time someone asks me how sabbatical is going, I respond “I think I’m doing it wrong…”

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image source: knowyourmeme.com

I set out to do four researchy things on sabbatical, as outlined in my sabbatical application:

  1. Go to the National Museum of Natural History and photograph a bunch of fossil teeth to measure when I’m not on sabbatical.
  2. Analyze the backlog of jumping salamander videos for power analysis, which means frame-by-frame of over 300 videos. And related to same project: learn how to make histological sections of salamander torsos.
  3.  Attend the American Alliance of Museums annual conference, as I’m working on determining if we can open a museum of natural history and culture in Meadville.
  4.  Do a feasability analysis of said museum.

I’ve gotten #1 done, and #3 is in early May. I’ve met with folks re: #4 and discovered I need to take about 3 steps backwards first. I’m currently woking on #2 and have done 41 videos this week. I have 7 days left on my free trial of the video analysis software, and I don’t work on weekends…I don’t think I’m going to make it through all of the videos. The histology is harder than I had hoped…but I finally have tissues not falling out of section and making it onto slides!

But then again….I did a lot that isn’t on the list. Since the application for sabbatical was due almost 1.5 years before this semester, some things came up after that.

  1. I’ve been associate editor of a journal for less than a year, so I had those responsibilities.
  2. I wrote an application for an internal grant (and got it!) to start revamping our intro bio course.
  3. I participated in a reading group to help lead to that grant.
  4. I kept working on cataloging the paleontology collection.
  5. I gave a talk at McDaniel College while I was in DC.
  6. I kept running my programs that related to my educational scholarship/research: 4th Graders as Scientists, Educators in the Workplace, the Allegheny College – Crawford Central School District STEM Partnership. These are all HUGE time commitments, in terms of organization and getting them up and running each year. I found myself asking “how the hell do I do this when I’m teaching 3 classes?!”
  7. I ran a fossil day camp for our local Girl Scout troops:

     

  8. I submitted a research grant to a foundation, which will allow me to pick up my shark tooth biomechanics research again.
  9. Colleageus and I submitted a symposium proposal to ICVM, and will submit a workshop proposal to SICB next week.
  10. I got two new projects planned out for this summer and next year.
  11. Pulled into several convos about department stuff, as we have several retirements happening this year.
  12. I’m still working with JMIH and AES on code of conduct stuff.

On the relaxation front:

  1. I finally completed a set of mittens for myself (for once). I’ve had the yarn for 3 years:      mittens
  2. I completed a shawl for myself (again!) with yarn I’ve had for about 12 years.
  3. I’m taking voice lessons! I’ve always wanted to!
  4. I have read 13 non-work books (actually fewer than I had hoped at this point).
  5. I’m all caught up on Marvel movies, just in time to see Infinity War this afternoon.
  6. I spent 2 weeks taking care of my mom after her knee replacement (ok, not relaxing at all, but it was 2 weeks I spent out of the office).

And yet, I look back on this list…and see I’ve got a crap-ton of work done, and seem to be missing the relaxation piece, porportionally speaking. This is probably why I am staring at the list of over 200 videos I still have to analyze, and am just thinking about saying “f-this” despite my software trial time running down, and going home to work on my crafty stuff for my side-gig, which kicks into high gear in May:

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To be potted…

And then there’s this contribution to not feeling relaxed enough:

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The back of my car, February 2018

I didn’t go anywhere, other than my DC trip (6 days) and back to Chicago to take care of my mom (2 weeks). It’s a stay-battical. My partner has a non-academic job. He can’t just take a semester off. We had no interest in making either of us single parent for more than 2 weeks.  My daughter still has to be at the bus stop at 7:25am. My partner still has to commute 25 minutes to his job, and leaves at the same time. My son still goes to preschool. So, normal life goes on. So, you’re seeing mom life in that photo: 2 car seats, Girl Scout cookies that needed to be sorted into individual orders, PVC to build the cookie booth, fabric & paint for the banner for said cookie booth, bird seed for our bird feeders, hockey sticks for both kids, 4 bottles of wine, and a small bag of things I forgot to pick up while grocery shopping a few days earlier.

No wonder I don’t feel like I’m doing sabbatical “right”! I’m comparing myself to colleagues that jet off to France or Australia for a year with or without families, or who aren’t running three programs because there’s nobody to hand them off to, or who can sleep in or take off on a random weekend to go to the Outer Banks.

But I am getting to spend more time with my kiddos and family – days where the kids and partner had off from school/work and I usually don’t. I feel like we can take more down time on the weekends to fun things or make complicated meals (I finally made tamales from scratch!), since I can put off errands to happen during the week when they’re at school/work. I am glad that I got to help out my mom and sisters by hanging with my mom after her surgery – something that would be impossible if I wasn’t on sabbatical. I got to take a detour to UIUC, my alma mater, from Chicago to see my former undergrad research advisor…he’s been retired for over 10 years and had just finished his “omega” monograph. I don’t know that I’ll get to see him again.  I got to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture while in DC, which was moving and amazing.  Travel to far away places can wait until the next sabbatical, when the kids are older. Sleeping in can wait – that’s what coffee is for.

When I stop to write all this down, and take stock of the last several months, I think I did sabbatical just right.

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So I wrote a thing about sexual harassment, sexism, and shark science….

http://www.southernfriedscience.com/speaking-out-about-sexual-harassment-in-shark-science/

Scientific history has always been “whitewashed” & other problems with Nature

There’s a lot for me to be mad about this week. The repeal of DACA. Hurricanes. Whatever governmental shenanigans that are likely flying under the radar while we’re all distracted by DACA and hurricanes.

Today, though – I’ve been mad about the idiocy of Nature News and Comment‘s editorial all day. In it, they propose that taking down statues of scientists that experimented on Black people without their consent (Thomas Parran Jr.) or without anesthesia (J. Marion Sims) is inappropriate. Instead, they propose adding plaques to these monuments “noting the controversy” or adding an “equally sized monument commemorating the victims”.  The thing that angered me most though was this sentence: “Erasing names, however, runs the risk of whitewashing history.”

Let me break this down for you:

(1) History and science have always been whitewashed in this country. Maybe this is not what they were going for with this choice of phrase, but the scientists we read about in our books, the ones that historically super well cited – those are White men. We continue to lift White men above others in science in other ways. For example, Nobel Prizes tend to be awarded to “European and American researchers”, and they have a history of antisemitism (see the delay in giving Albert Einstein his prize) and sexism.  People of color are still underrepresented in STEM fields.

(2) Removing monuments is not the same as removing history. It’s not like we’re suddenly going to forget who Parran and Sims were and what they did. They have published papers. They are still an integral part of our history as scientists, for better or for worse.

(3) Other countries or institutions deciding to leave up statues or acknowledging that they have problematic history is not good support for your argument that we should do the same. This smacks of “if your friends went and jumped off a bridge, so we should too” (thanks, Mom). We’re scientists. We know better than to use that kind of evidence in an argument.

(4) Equal sized monument? How a bigger, better monument to those who were tortured and mistreated? We can put the plaque “noting the controversy” on that, and get rid of the statues of unethical scientists.

<stepping off soapbox>

 

 

Music, my job, my life

Yesterday, I took my first guitar lesson – something I’ve been wanting to do for about 10 years. It was only 30 minutes long, and I learned the correct position for my right hand. I’m so excited for my next lesson and to sit and just practice.
 
I can’t imagine my life without music. Anyone who has visited my office knows that there is always music playing, whether its classical, movie scores, blues, classic rock, or hip hop – really, as long as it’s not modern country, I probably listen to it. My more observant students have learned over the years that they can predict what I’m working on or my general mood by what genre of music is playing. Movies scores and classical are for writing or grading a student’s writing, and usually something like Rage Against the Machine for data analysis. Analyzing video or measuring things from photos call for something I can sing along to.
Currently, I’m listening to a resistance-themed playlist curated by a group of friends, which starts with “O Fortuna” (Carmina Burana), followed by “Fight the Power” (Public Enemy), “Suffragette City” (David Bowie), and “Strange Fruit” (Billie Holiday). Take that as you will.
I’ve been playing piano since kindergarten, tried trumpet in 6th grade, then switched to French horn in 7th grade. I still play piano and French horn (and maybe will pick up my trumpet again soon). It’s hard to get practice time in on the piano, because my daughter is taking piano lessons and my son also wants in on the action. By the time the piano is free, the kids are in bed, so it’s a no-go.
French horn happens more often, and that’s because I play with our college’s wind symphony (and sometimes the civic symphony). We practice Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday at lunch time, and have one concert each semester. Unfortunately, because of department meetings or other committee meetings, I don’t get to go to every practice. Thankfully our director is super understanding.
horn

My horn, patiently waiting in my lap before our spring concert

 The music faculty that play wind instruments also play in this ensemble (trumpet, bassoon, trombone). I am not the only non-music faculty that plays though. We have a chemist (clarinet) and occasionally another biologist (flute), a staff member from career services (clarinet), and our former provost played until she retired (flute).  The wind symphony, however, is almost entirely students and the ensemble is for them. The majority are not music majors or minors, but they are amazingly talented – far more so than I can ever hope to be.
I love that I get to see them in this different environment. There are a lot of biology and geology majors/minors in that ensemble, and sometimes students get to know me there before they ever have me in class. I also get to know students outside biology and geology in this context. I think we all appreciate that we can talk about music, and not just their science classes, their senior research, etc. This is an added bonus to my job that I never anticipated.
Study after study cites the benefits of music education through childhood: it helps develop language, pattern recognition, mathematical skills, quantitative reasoning, creative thinking, teamwork, discipline, better SAT scores, higher grades…the list goes on. A quick Google Scholar search yielded 1,840,000 results.
Did all of this music help me with things? Maybe. Do I hope they help my kids? Sure. But here’s the real reason why my daughter is in piano lessons and I will always put on music when my son asks: it makes my heart happy, and I hope that my kids will have something that make them that happy too.
Have you ever experienced that moment in a piece of music where you get chills? There’s a suite of music by Johan deMeij based on the Lord of the Rings books (well before the movies; he premiered it in 1988 in Brussels). The first movement, “Gandalf”, is my favorite partially because of its wonderful horn part. You can listen to it here. But there is this part, right at about the 3:40 mark, that gives me chills every time – whether I’m listening to it or playing it with an ensemble; it sounds like the heavens are opening and there is hope.
I love science and I love what I do. But it doesn’t give me chills. It can’t move me like that. That is why we need music education. That is why we need music in our lives. That is why I need music and am grateful that it is part of my job.

So what’s the plan for the rest of your career?

The title of this post is a question that the provost asked me during a meeting last week. It was an informal meeting, and we talked about a lot of things. But this question….

Going through the tenure process, the focus is on meeting that goal. Check the boxes (service on a college-wide committee, check), be outstanding in every way, don’t say “no” too often, don’t piss anyone off, get those teaching scores above the median, publish, be indispensable, apply for grants, present at conferences. A friend of mine stated that “tenure was designed to keep therapists in business”. He is not wrong.

Now…things are a bit more nebulous. I know which research areas I’d like to finish up with and let others run with them (salamander jumping…just 300 videos away from finishing up that last set of analyses!). I know which research areas I’d like to focus more on and have a few things waiting in the wings (shark teeth…so excited to come back to it!). I’m also finally formally moving forward with figuring out if we can open a museum of natural history and culture here in Meadville – this and the 300 videos is my sabbatical plan for Spring/Summer 2018. I’m also excited to try some new things in the classroom that I had been advised not to before tenure.

Except that’s not what the provost meant. Am I planning on going up for full professor? What about chairing a department? Had I considered moving towards administration?

skeletor2

skeletorislove.tumblr.com

We do rotating department chairs at my institution, so it won’t be my turn for a while – I’ve got someone ahead of me in the queue. Of course, I’m planning on going up for full professor at some point. Admin? Uh….hadn’t thought about it.

I think that the question also struck me because I’ve now sort-of crossed into “mid-career”.  I turned 40 last month, and have been doing research in some fashion or another since undergrad. If started at 21, and let’s say I decide to retire at 65, then yeah, I’m mid-career. Just saying/typing that feels weird. I’ve been out of grad school for 8 years, but damn. Do people go to grad school in geology/biology and think “my career goal is to be an associate dean” or something like that (I’m sure there are people that do that, but I don’t know any personally)? It’s never mentioned as an option. Of course, neither is teaching at a small liberal arts college, yet here I am.

So what am I going to do for the rest of my career? For now, my answer is going to be “keep being awesome.”

skeletor

skeletorislove.tumblr.com

 

 

Reflection

This fall semester I taught three seminar courses (in addition to managing a few independent study students):

  • Senior Seminar: working with my students on their senior thesis research
  • Sophomore Seminar: introducing students to independent research in biology, writing in the discipline of biology, and continuing to develop their oral communication skills. My students worked with the human dive response and came up with some really cool group experiments, including how music, caffeine, and exercise influences the strength of the dive response.
  • Freshman Seminar: introducing first semester students to college writing and speaking, critical reading and thinking, and college life in general.

For the freshman seminar, faculty are free to choose the theme of the course. Instead of picking a science topic, I decided that we would explore the modern D.I.Y. (do it yourself) movement (here is a link describing part of the movement). The D.I.Y. movement encompasses craft, technology, homesteading, publishing, and even activism. As an added bonus, we would get to work with our hands and learn some new skills as part of the course. For the last part of the course, I asked students to take on a D.I.Y. project that would help them learn a new skill. Their final paper and speech would be about this project. Based on the speeches so far, they really took the project seriously.

One of my students learned how to do this kind of spray paint art, and a tutorial is here. Her final piece turned out very similar, minus the boat.

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Image url: http://cdn02.craftisart.com/products/images/thumbs/lg_f5794609cf27bd.jpg

Another student, who is an avid woodworker, decided to learn how to do mosaics. While she didn’t make the chair below, she did all of the mosaic work:

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Photo taken by L. Whitenack

Other students have crocheted, made ice cream, constructed a light fixture from found materials, created jewelry, learned how to decorate a cake…it’s been amazing.

What I did not mention about that freshman seminar is that it’s also part of a program that is “designed to improve the first year college experience of students traditionally underrepresented and/or underserved in American higher education, including, but not limited to U.S. ethnic minority students, first-generation college students, students who come to Allegheny from a great distance and students from urban or rural high schools with a low college matriculation rate.” It is truly a wonderful program. My first year students have bonded with each other in ways I did not expect, and are genuinely curious about each other’s backgrounds. We spent 20 minutes in class last week sampling Mexican candy that one of my students brought to class. Let me tell you, students from PA and western NY have no idea what to do with chili-covered tamaranid candy.

And then the election happened.

For the two weeks following the election, my office doubled as a safe space for my students. Students who were afraid to go off campus because of their skin color. Students whose families canceled Thanksgiving.  Students who were thrust into the position of peacekeeper in their families. Students who needed somewhere they could just be, even if they were just sitting on my couch doing homework for an hour while I continued with my work. And what about those students who are feeling silenced because they supported the winning candidate? Do they have somewhere to go?, because they’re certainly not coming to me.

My office as a safe space is nothing new. I’m a female faculty member with kids, so I get double mom-points. Students tell me all sorts of things that many of our white male faculty are completely clueless about. This time feels very different though. Before, my students’ problems were exactly that – their problems – and I could help them or at least direct them to the appropriate help. I still took a little bit with me, but did okay with keeping them somewhat separate. This time, I am wondering how to take care of my students while taking care of my family and myself.  Is there something I should be doing for my students that I am not? How do I help my adopted family members who are putting plans in place to flee the country if necessary? How hard do I fight the person who keeps putting my #BlackLivesMatter sign into  our emptied trash can on trash pickup days? How do I set those issues aside to make sure that I am taking care of myself? I can’t fix these problems; I don’t know how.

I am not one to sit idly by for anything. And so, I research, I read, and I put my efforts into taking care of those around me. This “invisible” work load of student care, added in to my normal work load, plus time to think as I waited for student papers to roll in during finals week, was exhausting.

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My first year students asked me during the last week of classes if I was going to do a new DIY skill while they were doing theirs. I had completely meant to try something new and crafty, and it got lost in the semester. But then I realized that I had picked up a new skill: grassroots activism. I joined our local SURJ chapter, as well as a smaller local group.

Now we are at the beginning of the spring semester, and classes start tomorrow. I am teaching what is considered a more “normal” science-y teaching load: intro biology, biostatistics, and senior seminar. I am somewhat refreshed, after a lovely bout of shingles forced me to just rest for a week. I don’t know what this semester will bring though, outside of the classroom. What is inauguration day going to look like for my students and colleagues? What about the days after? Tenure, and therefore academic freedom, is already under fire in a handful of states. I work at a private institution, so in some ways I am “safe”, but a lot of my friends are not. It’s easy for me to imagine a situation where my colleagues teaching evolution, immunology, or even intro bio could be silenced. In my intro bio course, I teach about vaccines, STIs, birth control, the age of the earth and life, evolution, climate change…all hot button topics, and yet none are “political” on the surface. Sure, most intro bio professors do not borrow an IUD or diaphragm sizing set from their doctors, so I get that I might be doing a bit more than others, but the rest of it is normal intro bio stuff.

And so I wait. And I read. And I watch. And I think. My brain is my best tool for anything that comes. And I keep doing my jobs – educating our students, being where I am needed, preparing my two kids for their futures – with my eyes and brain open wide.

 

 

 

And now for something completely different…

I turned in my tenure packet about 2 weeks ago. It’s very weird not to have that hanging over my head anymore. I don’t know the outcome yet, and won’t for several more weeks, and that’s fine. I can wait. However, I’m left with that same feeling that I had after turning in my dissertation, my masters thesis, and countless other big projects:

fks

This is why I keep looking at my “To Do” list and sighing. This is why I spent an hour clearing and organizing my email inbox yesterday. This is why I have decided that redoing the department display case is a great idea (and it’s looking awesome so far!). This is why I’m writing this blog post instead of grading or doing the reading for my class this afternoon.

It’s not like I don’t have stuff to do. I have paper drafts to give feedback on. I have a journal article and grant proposal that I need to peer review. I have a book chapter due in 2.5 weeks, and I’m modifying the word-vomit to something presentable.  I have some accounting to do and emails to send regarding the partnership that I manage. I have letters of recommendation to write. I also need to make a decision on direction for a paper that I’m writing and buckle down and do it, because I can’t do all of the things with that paper. I have tons of fish to clear and stain.

I think that the reason I want to do anything but work is because my brain needs time to reconfigure. It’s like I need an operating system upgrade. For the past 7 years, my operating system has been “Tenure Track”, and moving toward the goal of earning tenure has determined many of my decisions (for better or worse, that’s the truth of it).  For the last two weeks that hasn’t been a factor. My brain does not seem to know how to handle this newfound freedom. I willingly gave up being chair of a committee to give myself a break, but sitting in the first committee meeting after that was strange and felt a little wrong. I’ve had a batch of paper drafts for a week, but I haven’t touched them. Before this, I tried my best to stick to returning things within a week. But, I don’t feel that sense of urgency to get them done and I feel a bit guilty about that too.

I know that I’m not alone in this feeling. I’ve seen articles in the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed about exactly this – feeling adrift after earning tenure. Heck, I haven’t even earned tenure, and I’m sitting here thinking “now what?”.

So here’s the plan:

(1) Give myself a freakin’ break. The fact that I made it through this process is a Big Deal. I know I’ll get my work done, but I shouldn’t beat myself up for these days of “doing nothing”.

(2) Spend some time on reflection. What do I want the next few years to look like? What do I want to focus on, for me? I think I know the answers to this already, but it would be a good idea to get it down on paper.

(3) Rewards. For every 3 papers I grade, I get a treat. Don’t judge – it works.

(4) Research. Go back to those articles and resources, figure out if there’s any other strategies.

Even just writing this blog post has helped, so that’s good. Time to get to work.