Friday, September 21st 2012

Talks and Trips, Fall 2012

It’s that time of year when I take stock of how many more times I’ll be away from my family before the semester is through. I’ve pared things down quite a bit this year after traveling too much last year, and so my talks are semi-local, but open to the public. Stay tuned because there may be two more in the works.

September 24-25th, Purdue Conference for Pre-Tenure Women. Obviously I am just an attendee for this conference, but as you probably know I was a huge fan last year. If any of you are going I hope you’ll tell me so we can say hi. I may be a bit battered and bruised because I have a sanctioned scrimmage on the 23rd in Evansville against Sioux Falls (they play Demo City the night before). And incidentally, I’ll be back in West Lafayette the following weekend to play the Lafayette Brawlin’ Dolls. But this is to tell you of my science whereabouts, so onward!

October 5th, Chambana Science Café. Science Cafés are local, casual events where the public and scientists get to engage with each other. The blurb for the one I’m a guest at is: “Kate Clancy is an assistant professor of biological anthropology, blogger of ladybusiness, avenger of bad science, and roller derby athlete. Come hear Dr. Clancy talk about science communication, her research, and how important it is to understand the female body in the face of cultural and political attacks on choice.”

  • Where and when: 5:30pm, Espresso Royale Café (1117 W. Oregon St., Urbana).

October 16th, Bradley University, Peoria, IL “Women in Science” lecture series. My talk title is “The importance of public anthropology to the battle for women’s health.” I’m looking forward to meeting some great women’s studies students earlier that day, and then giving this talk intended for the general public.

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Wednesday, September 19th 2012

The Sports Psychology of Academia: Part II

Writing down all the factors in our sporting or academic lives in which we have no control is a bit disempowering. You mean I’m up against all that, and there isn’t anything I can do?

Except that there is! We are both more and less in control of our lives than we think.

In The Sports Psychology of Academia: Part I on Monday I made two main points:

  • It’s important to recalibrate your understanding of success in the context of your environment.
  • You can only control your own preparation and reaction to external factors.

So in this post we can try and unpack those preparations and reactions, but also identify and rock out on the factors that are in our control.

So how do you prepare for the uncontrollable? Some people find it useful to map out their responses to various scenarios. In athletics we often do visualizations – back when roller derby wasn’t all scrum starts, I often visualized being the first jammer off the line and racing to the back of the pack. I also practiced starts and did plyometrics designed to improve my starts, as a way of maximizing my preparation. So I could imagine scenarios, but also give myself the best possible advantage against any opponent by being at my fastest.

In academia, I try to plan for setbacks or slow progress while keeping a positive outlook. This actually comes from my union organizer days, where we set what we called “high expectations, low bar” for the folks we tried to organize into leaders. So, what journal will I submit to when I don’t get it in Glamor Pub (ok, I’ve never actually submitted to any of the Glamor Pubs, but you might)? If some of my undergrads drift away, how will I get this project completed without them?

But honestly, I’m sure you already do these things. What I find most important to remember about all this is that starting point and environment really matter. Scicurious has a great response to my post where she focuses on this. In particular, she notes:

I often hear about or go to seminars on “mentorship”, or “getting ahead in academia”, or “maximizing your networking potential”. A lot of these seminars are helpful, but a lot of them also actually depend on you having a good beginning position in the first place. “Getting ahead in academia” seminars often assume that you have already worked with some well known people and are already well published and funded. “Mentorship” seminars or “networking” seminars often assume that you are working with people who want to mentor you, or actively work to help you network, or heck, even successful social skills. And if you look around at those seminars, and you do NOT feel as poised and prepared as the others around you…well you start to wonder if this is all your fault.

I think we all understand that an athlete’s current abilities are determined not only by her current effort and resource availability, but the resources she had her entire life. I played soccer for a large public high school, on a team with a ton of raw talent. But few of my teammates had gone to the years and years of summer camps our opponents had had access to. So despite being among many athletes, we didn’t have the right attitude, conditioning or skill level to ever have a winning season in the four years I played.

* * *

In our roller derby sports psych session, once we had thought about what wasn’t in our control and what we could do about it, Dr. Walker had us list all the factors in our sport that we could control. Then came the scary part: we had to rate ourselves on a scale of 1-10 on each. Here’s what I put down:

  • Nutrition -8
  • Exercise -9
  • Hydration -8
  • Effort -9
  • Strategy -7
  • Communication -6
  • Attitude -5
  • Self-talk -5
  • Focus -8
  • Body language -7
  • Sleep -6
  • Decision-making -8
  • Confidence -7
  • Emotions -6

What he told us to do was take a hard look at these numbers. We all want to focus on the places where we’re already doing well, because that’s what makes us feel good. So for instance, when I want to feel good, I focus on nutrition (8) and off-skates exercise (9) and killing myself at practice (effort -9).

But what Dr. Walker encouraged us to do was make the three or four items where we scored lowest our focus. This means I need to work on attitude, self-talk, sleep, communication, and my emotions.

Me jamming in a roller derby bout in the top photo, me hanging with a teammate in the bottom photo.

To succeed at what I’m doing on the top, I need to do more of what I’m doing on the bottom. Both photos by Alex Wild.

After almost two months of this – and I’m not doing anything especially different in my routine, just making a greater commitment to these things – I am a cooler-headed player. I get more sleep: instead of powering through articles I need to read for a literature review (or, ahem, watching another episode of Justified) I go to bed when I’m tired. As a team, we check in with each other more and are learning to read signs of distress and counteract them. I identify negative self-talk, even if I can’t necessarily stop it. I strive to be ever more generous with my team and referees.

I don’t know that this has changed our ultimate performance – whether our team wins or loses. But I think it has vastly aided my own preparation, my reactions to circumstances during bouts, and given me some confidence in places where I was previously lacking. In the coming months I am going to try and identify evidence-based interventions to actually help me with these factors, rather than just reflect on them passively.

* * *

What can I control as tenure-track faculty? Go on, make your own list of these or other criteria, and rate yourself. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Time -8
  • Effort -9
  • Decision-making -7
  • Confidence -7
  • Attitude -6
  • Self-talk -6
  • Health (in the sense of taking care of myself) -9
  • How I interact with colleagues -9
  • How I mentor my students -7
  • My knowledge of the literature -9
  • My statistical skill set -7
  • My lab skill set -7
  • My writing skill set -8

Looking at this list, some of the same issues plague me as an academic and athlete: confidence, attitude, self-talk are things I need to improve (*cough* impostor syndrome! *cough*). But I also want to be a better mentor, a better statistician, a better lab scientist (to have knowledge of appropriate methods for my research so I can train and support my students). Finally, I want to be better at decision-making: how to allocate my time, what battles to fight, what strategies I should employ for success.

I think my results here reflect my graduate training, which is probably pretty typical. In graduate school, I learned that you have to put in the time, you have to work your ass off, and you have to know the literature. So those come easily. I have a good writing skill set because I taught composition for a year and write this blog. I think I interact with my colleagues fairly well because I try to be generous and fair.

But as many academics have pointed out many times: we aren’t really trained to do our jobs. I have no training in lab management, grantwriting, and personnel management. I have erred several times in my decision-making in the last four years simply because no one warned me about obstacles before I crashed headlong into them.

Moving forward, I want to continue to think about the ways academics beat themselves up for poor performance, which is where the negative self-talk and confidence issues find their way in. Some of the NSF Panels I’ve applied to in the last few years have had a 5% fund rate. Most jobs in my field have over a hundred applicants, which leads to a 1% success rate. And yet we are hard on ourselves when we don’t get the grants or the jobs? This is why it’s so important to parse worth and ultimate performance!

So this exercise brings to light two main issues: 1) ways individuals can work to overcome their weaknesses and thus increase their chances for great academic performance, and 2) ways institutions can better train academics to do their jobs, also increasing their chances for great performance.

How should this look? And what needs to shift for you?

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Monday, September 17th 2012

The Sports Psychology of Academia: Part I

Skaters from the Twin City Derby Girls (including Mrs. Myrmecos) have got the opposing jammer's number.

Skaters from the Twin City Derby Girls (including Mrs. Myrmecos) have got the opposing jammer's number. Photo by Alex Wild.

For me, roller derby began with a very steep learning curve. I didn’t know how to skate, I didn’t know the rules, and so every practice left me physically and mentally exhausted. I did bring my own skill set to the sport: I’ve been an athlete my whole life, and played many a contact sport, and so some parts of roller derby – the physical fitness, hitting, body awareness, cross-training and nutrition – came easily.

After a while though, I hit the limit of the edge my athletic performance gave me. And so I had to start reading derby blogs for strategy, increase my off-skates workouts, and learn about roller derby gear to make sure I was using the right materials. I attended some clinics. I tried new moves until spectacular falls became small falls, and small falls became no falls.

I’ve become, I think, a pretty good player. I skate for a young but nationally ranked team, and I have exceptional, talented teammates and coaches (just see a few of them above).

Yet you know enough about sports to know even great teams don’t win every single bout they play, and that when they lose it isn’t always to the more talented team. Most of us understand that in sports, we can’t actually control whether we win or lose. We can only control our preparation leading up to, and our reaction to game conditions.

The best athletes recalibrate their understanding of success: success is less about winning or losing, and more about whether they played their best game. How did they prepare for the event? How did they handle adversity, including bad luck or unfairness? Were they proactive or reactive in the face of their opponents? Did they put in maximum effort?

Success in sport, then, is context-dependent. And to increase your chances of success in the traditional sense (winning), you need to increase your success in the factors that are under your control. You need to get to the point where you can anticipate and handle most contexts.

Academia (heck, most of the jobs of most of you reading today) is the same way. We can control only ourselves and how we react to given situations.

So why are we so hard on ourselves when we fail?

* * *

This summer, my league brought in sports psychologist Dr. Brent Walker to talk to us about how to take the next step in our mental performance. Dr. Walker came as a kindness to a student of his, but was so constructive we would have paid for a million more sessions. Alas, Columbia has just scooped him up from Eastern Illinois University and so now they get to benefit from his wisdom instead.

The first step of our session was to list the factors we cannot control related to performance in roller derby bouts. These included:

  • The floor surface (grippy or slick floors impact our ability to do certain kinds of moves)
  • Referees
  • Fans
  • Attitude of the opposing team
  • Ability of the opposing team
  • Injuries and who we can roster
  • Personal, family, or work stressors
  • Luck

Then we discussed the importance of planning ahead of time for as many of these factors as possible to better control our reactions. So for instance, if we’re skating in an away bout and don’t know anything about the floor, we bring several kinds of wheels to try out during our warmups.

What are those factors for academics, particularly academic scientists? Here are a few that come to mind for me:

  • Whether laboratory materials are delayed, backordered
  • Research participant retention issues
  • My tenure & promotion committee and their decisions
  • My collaborators’ priorities
  • My departmental colleagues’ priorities
  • My students’ priorities, commitments, responsiveness to my mentoring
  • Journals’ manuscript decisions
  • Grant reviewers’ decisions
  • The quality of the pool I am up against for manuscripts and grants
  • My husband’s work priorities
  • My daughter’s health and wellness (to some extent – what I mean here is I cannot control when she gets sick and I have to miss work)
  • My daughter’s school’s days off
  • Crappy luck (things breaking or not working)

What other factors seem to be beyond our control? How do you plan ahead to neutralize or change them?

I’ll have a follow-up post Wednesday on the second part of this exercise. Discuss!


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