Wednesday, July 6th 2016

Take the damn rollback

Dear junior faculty with aging parents, impending adoptions or pregnancies, medical issues or research setbacks,

Take the damn rollback (or stop your tenure clock, or whatever you call it at your institution). Stop worrying, stop losing sleep, stop hemming and hawing. Stop ruminating on Professor Crustypants and whether he’ll have a problem with your rollback. Stop wondering if you will be denied a promotion.

Here’s the thing. If you are a person of color, identify as female or a non-cis gender identity, or have any number of other identities that stray from Albert Einstein’s*, there are plenty of ways through the course of your career in which you will be discriminated against. It will happen. So rather than let that crap seep into your personal life and make it hard for you to choose elder care/bear a child/whatever, take the damn rollback. It’s not that your fears may not be real, it’s that you can’t let them affect every decision you make.

Play the long game. Play the game that means, in ten years, you’ll have the healthy relationships and thriving lab that you always dreamed of. Play the game in a way where your institution is the institution it should be rather than the one that it is. If the institution turns out to fail you, it would have failed you at some other point – better to know now and figure out how to deal with it.

Play the game so that you can be asking the questions you care about, doing the research that is important to you, over the next several decades. If this means a dip in productivity right now, so be it. Good institutions recognize human reproductive life cycles as a normal part of the life span of a good worker.

Play the game so that the people who come after you, the students you mentor and postdocs you chat with in the line for the bathroom at conferences, will have a better work climate. Be one of the people who makes things better, rather than tells her mentees to suck it up because that’s how it is.

Just take the damn rollback.

Love and kisses,


*If you will look like Albert Einstein when you’re old or you look like him now, be a good ally and not only take the rollback, but don’t be like these dudes and actually use it for its intended purpose. Don’t mess this one up for us.

Friday, May 20th 2016

Mentors and collaborators: when are you one, when are you the other?

In the sciences we’ve moved almost completely over to the model of the multi-paper dissertation. There are of course a number of advantages. Students can have a far more impressive CV for when they go on the job market if they already have publications, rather than if they are struggling to convert dissertation chapters into publications. Their advisors also often get a few more pubs to their name, which is helpful if they are pre-tenure or gearing up for a grant proposal. And it gives students some time while they are still students to be mentored on the art of the journal publication.

The challenge I see is in navigating the advisor’s dual role on student manuscripts as mentor and collaborator. Advisors generally make substantial intellectual contributions to student work, because it is a part of the training the student receives to become a researcher and a scientist. Advisors also have a lot more experience in the culture of academia, from the appropriate journals, to the way to word critiques, to how strongly one points out one’s own study limitations. But in my field at least, advisors are not the ultimate expert on that student’s dissertation: the student is. The student is the one who spent six years developing an idea and expertise, carrying out the research, and carving a niche for herself. Even when students are carving out their own space in a broader project of the advisor’s, they are the content experts and the advisors are often conceptual framework/theory/disciplinary experts. The goal of a PhD is to have your student know more than you by the time they defend.

So, when it comes time to write the papers, what is an advisor (or a dissertation committee, depending on how involved they are) to do?

The advisors could treat the manuscript like a dissertation and provide rounds and rounds of edits until it’s as they like it. They could use it as a chance to teach the student about formatting, and writing, and how to communicate best with colleagues. This seems like a good thing until it isn’t. This student is presumably first author and did all the work, and if the advisor is too heavy handed the student may become resistant to revisions, however good or correct they may be. The paper may stop feeling like the student’s, or they may grow to hate it, or they may just make changes to please their committee rather than the changes they feel are appropriate to the science.

Now, these are issues that can crop up with any form of collaborative writing. But power dynamics get tricky when the lead author is junior and the collaborators are all the people who will decide whether or not you get a PhD.

I don’t know that there is a perfect solution to this. But I have a few thoughts for those of us in the more powerful position:

  • As Paul Silvia argues in Write It Up, have the journal in mind before you write the paper (actually, he argues you should have the journal in mind before you even run the study!). This was a dissertation. It probably wasn’t well funded. It probably wasn’t perfect. It is still an important contribution that deserves to get out there, or else you wouldn’t be writing this paper with your student. So rather than try to make the paper a PNAS paper, determine what would be a journal that is an excellent fit for the topic and great for your student. Maybe in your own research you aim higher. If you force this paper follow your usual trajectory, it could lead to heartbreak for all parties.
  • If the lead author were a fellow faculty member (albeit a junior one), how would you handle your disagreements or edits? At what point would you let some things go? (Or maybe you’re the kind of collaborator who doesn’t let a single perspective or grammatical difference go anyone else’s way but your own. If that’s the case, remind me not to collaborate with you.)
  • As you would with a colleague, if a student is really obstinate and you are quite sure you are right, give the reviewers a chance to tell her. (I had this happen to me once, and it was quite humbling; I had this happen to a collaborator once and it was quite satisfying.)

You’ll notice what I’m advocating for here is a little bit of balance: a recognition of our expertise and role as mentors, but also the recognition that we are, when writing papers, collaborators. Our students may still have loads to learn from us (and we from them), but I imagine the way to create that optimal learning environment is to guide and lead rather than grind away.

Tuesday, April 26th 2016

Support NTFC #6546 – Education First!

Edited to say: After NTFC’s second strike they were successful at ratifying a great contract! Press release here.

I’ve come out of bloggy hibernation to share with you an email I just sent to my Chancellor and Provost. If you support NTFC #6546 (and you should), please write and to encourage fair contract negotiations.

Dear Chancellor Wilson and Provost Feser,

I am writing to you today to ask that you agree to the terms of the NTFC #6546 contract they are requesting, specifically their reasonable request for evaluations and, after years of good service, multiyear contracts. I am astounded that contract negotiations have stalled given NTFC’s rather meager request. Further, I believe, as do many other students, faculty, and staff, that a strong contract for our non-tenure track faculty will strengthen the mission of this university.

When I was in graduate school, I was a union organizer. I was a member of GESO, now Local 33, the graduate student union at Yale University. The organizing I did over five years of my PhD provided me with a better education than any of my classroom experiences, fieldwork, or dissertation writing. My time as a union organizer is the reason I had the strength and confidence to dare to follow my scholarly instincts and study sexual harassment and assault within science. I’m sure you can imagine the kind of backlash I and my collaborators experienced just by daring to pose the question, and what we continue to experience today by colleagues who wish we had kept the whole thing quiet. But our discipline is changing, and other disciplines are following suit, from philosophy to astronomy, and I know a big part of it is the research we conducted that blew open the idea that scientists are different, more ethical and moral creatures than other humans.

Labor unions are powerful, positive forces on campus. They provide training, a mission, and a voice to those workers with some of the most mentally and financially oppressed conditions. They are often the only organizations on campus to push against the casualization of labor that has been a constant in academia for the last several decades, the only ones trying to turn terrible wages into living wages.

Unions give workers pride in the work that they do, and a sense of their real value, something that unfortunately Illinois has failed to do for non-tenure track workers for some time. As a tenure-track faculty member, I have been told by my colleagues far too many times to “rebudget my time” away from teaching and outreach. I have been told it is not valued here and will hurt my chances at tenure. One of my colleagues, in his first week of campus, was told by no less than six of his departmental colleagues to “keep in mind that the only person to not get tenure in our department was the one who won the teaching awards.” You know this is the culture here, and you know that in many departments the people who care most about our students and most about teaching are the non-tenure track faculty. They keep the teaching part of this university’s mission alive more than most other constituencies on campus, they provide substantial face time to our undergraduates, and they often teach the lowest-level, least gratifying courses. Non-tenure track positions are also more likely than tenure-track positions to be occupied by women and men of color and white women.

Here is the education our undergraduates receive when you continue to stall on the issue of multiyear contracts: they learn that they don’t matter, that we want them for their money as part of a big accreditation machine. They learn that their favorite teachers, the ones that helped them when they agonized over a major, that directed them to mental health services and kept them alive at a vulnerable moment, that provided tough love on a paper draft, won’t necessarily be here next year to teach, advise, and write them letters of reference.

Here is the scarier thing that our undergraduates learn from you: they learn that the leaders of their university don’t value good working conditions and good relationships with their workers. They learn that good business decisions call for turning away from low-paid workers, for disrespectful conduct towards those doing the most service on campus, for a cynical perspective on what we are all really trying to do here. Perhaps they pay it forward in their own workplaces and create hostile conditions for others, or perhaps they just decide Illinois is the sort of university to whom they will never, ever donate.

The education I want for my students, a perspective shared by the non-tenure track faculty I know, is quite different. I want my undergraduates to learn that Illinois leads, that it does right by its workers, that when situated in a small town in central Illinois, you recognize that your most prized resource is always your people. I want my undergraduates to learn that our motto, Learning and Labor, still means something to a lot of us, and that these words go hand in hand every working day. I want my undergraduates to be challenged, to be forced to question closely held beliefs, to gain skills that will help them secure good jobs and live good lives. This is the work done by so many of my non-tenure track sisters and brothers. This is also a risk that they take, every day, because they have no job security.

One final point: Illinois has invested resources recently in more progressive pedagogical practices, particularly around the Learning Design Laboratory (name?). This suggests to me that Illinois leadership recognizes the importance of taking risks when it comes to our teaching. My non-tenure track colleagues will not be able to radicalize their teaching or take as many risks as tenure-track faculty without more job security. I have had to endure upset students who are resistant to active learning strategies many times over the last eight years. But I have never feared that I would lose my job for taking these risks to encourage more engagement with my students.

Without multiyear contracts, it is difficult to expect non-tenure track faculty to build programs, maintain institutional memory, and develop relationships with their students. As you head into what I hope is your final negotiating session with NTFC #6546, I hope you take the needs of your students, and the core mission of this university, into account.

With thanks,

Kate Clancy