Monday, May 22, 2017

Against economic growth

One thing that really annoys, or maybe even frightens me, is economic growth. Because when growth becomes a goal, and not a means towards a goal, you are dealing with cancer. Not an organism, not a healthy tissue, but a cancerous outgrowth.

I'm fine with change. It may be Buddhist, or it may be nervous, anxious desire to change everything again and again, but while it may be empty, at lest it is not self-destructive.

Stasis, stability, conservatism, tradition are also fine. Perhaps dead a little, but fine. I like it.

Even improvement is fine, as improvement, efficiency, can still be self-contained. If I learn to do my job better and better, I can end up freeing some time to walk around the block, or play a banjo.

But growth is self-destructive.

And unfortunately it seems that our society is addicted to growth.

But then maybe I'm wrong, as I know positively nothing about economics.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Small linguistic victories

I was talking at the board, describing some imaginary scientist that does some imaginary experiments, and I referred to this scientist as "she".

This sure does not sound like an achievement: of course there are women scientists! My science classes are typically between 80% and 100% female after all. But for me every time it feels like a small breakthrough, for a very different reason. The thing is, while I teach only in English, inside my head I still think a little bit in Russian, at least to some extent. And in Russian all nouns are gendered (they are either masculine, feminine, or neutral). So for me, at a very intuitive, subconscious level, all cells are "she", while all neurons are "he". Neurons are dudes, cells are lasses, while nuclei don't care - nuclei are "it" (neutral). For me, mitochondria are always maternal, and not just because they carry mDNA and can prove maternal lineage, but because they are feminine, while receptors and channels are clearly masculine. It is probably ridiculous, but it's true, and follows the patterns described in the literature (there are some famous studies, one on bridges, and one on kitchen utensils)

And so, "of course" (sarcasm here) "a scientist" (учёный, ucheny) is masculine in Russian. But it's worse than even that: "a scientist" in Russian, while grammatically a noun, does not read or sound like a typical noun, but has all signs of an verbal adjective that is used as a noun. It's somewhat similar to English nouns like "grown-up", "initiate" or "trainee": essentially a "grown one", "initiated one", or "trained one" respectively. So in Russian the word for "scientist" is literally "the learned one"; and this "one" is grammatically male. In Russian, "A scientist" etymologically means "the learned male". Only think of it. "The learned male!". It's bizarre!

It is a very curious case, and seems to be almost an exception. Most words for professions and occupations in Russian are not like that: "a teacher", "a professor", "a student" are all normal nouns; some are masculine but can be used for females without a grammatical collapse; some have both masculine and feminine forms. All of them are more or less OK. "A scientist", however, totally hurts my brain. On several occasions, when I tried to make my writing in Russian more gender-inclusive, I was attacked by Russian speakers (women and men alike!) for ruining the grammar. Because if you write in Russian something like "When a scientist is tired, she takes a break", it short-circuits the grammar. It reads like "When a well-learned male man is tired, she takes a break", which is seriously weird.

And no, there's no "learned female" form for this word (like for German der Professor / die Professorin). If you try to forge a "feminine form", it sounds very unusual, and is completely unheard of. I gather with some effort it should be possible to introduce a "feminine version" by force, kind of how notation "they" was re-introduced in English for the purpose of gender inclusiveness, but so far nobody bothered to even start playing with these possibilities. And probably the society will be very resistant to changes like that, for quite a while. And even then, the controversy would probably remain, as it remains in German, as having two different words for male and female people in a profession is a bit weird.

But in my private life, for my private brain, this whole strange situation means that while I work mostly with female scientists, it is still curiously hard for me to refer to an imaginary "placeholder" scientist as "she" in speech. Because grammar representation in late life bilinguals is weird. Even after years of training, it feels that I have to consciously override some circuit in the Broca area to make it happen.

If you are a native English speaker and cannot relate to this story at all, try to imagine that you learned a language where the words for "scissors" or "pants" are singular, and not plural, as they are in English, and you now need to say something to the effect "my scissors is red", or "give me a pants". Would not it feel weird? I bet it would! Even though you would know perfectly well what you are talking about, and how to properly say it, you would still have to consciously override something in your brain to use "trousers" as a singular.

So, here you go: small linguistic victories.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

On some differences between industry and academia

Are there differences in the "workplace politics" in academia, compared to that in the corporate world? Is academic politics really worse than that in the industry? I think the answer is "yes": academic politics is indeed more painful than corporate politics, both emotionally, and in terms of being more destructive for the organization. Here are some thoughts about why it could be the case.

Compared to the corporate world, there are three unpleasant things about academic politics. One is that there is no clear common goal. In the corporate world at any moment of time usually there's a well defined goal (profit, saving, market expansion, sales, loss reduction etc.), and if something doesn't work, it least in theory, you can always stand up and ask the team to relate back to the goal. Look, we are not doing ourselves any good by getting involved in THIS, because it does not move us towards our main goal for this year. And then supposedly everybody readjust.

In academia, large-scale goals are almost never articulated, so every person comes up with goals of their own, and there is no clear way to figure out what do we want as a team. Basically, except in situations of emergency, we never want anything collectively, as a team. Sometimes the majority of people happen to have their goals aligned, but it always happens spontaneously, not because we are explicitly required, or want to work together. I guess the whole mythology about tenure and academic freedom does not help here as well. People are so proud of the concept of academic freedom that they basically flip out every time somebody tells them what to do. It's very much a "don't tread on me" mentality. How dare you tell me how to teach! What speakers to invite! What research to do! People are very protective of their freedom, which is great, but it makes things harder in so many cases, as they may become protective of their freedom "just in case", preemptively, before any actual conflict arises.

Another, related complication, as there is no culture of escalation and arbitrage. In the corporate world if you say "do it", and another person or function says "don't do it", you can always escalate to the management, have a meeting, and agree on the priorities. There is typically a procedure for resolving conflicts, and there is a clear power, so when sales and IT have a conflict, they just calculate the costs, have a meeting, put these costs together, and delegate the decision up. In academia the structure is much flatter, the responsibilities are less clear, and there is no culture of escalation. If you would write to the dean about a conflict with another faculty, it would be perceived as an insult and open war, not as a working moment that happens literally every other week. Which means that pretty much conflicts of interest can sit there for years without ever being resolved.

Finally, the last issue is that academics really like to think, analyze, and look into details, and really don't like making decisions. Which is the exact opposite of the corporate world: there people usually work against a pressure of time, so they know (or are taught hard way) that in many cases it's more important to make a decision, any decision, than over-eanalyze and procrastinate. So, at least in my experience, in the corporate world when you call a meeting, present your analysis, and no obvious red flags are identified, typically people vote for a "go" decision, and immediately send a proposal to the management. In academia typically nobody would believe your analysis, because they will feel that they need to do it themselves (not that they have the time of course), and then several hypothetical reservations will be voiced, and "what if" scenarios will be described, and a few people in the room will have some strong reservations they'll never voice (because, again, there is no culture of conflict resolution), and then everybody would agree to give it another thought, and maybe reconvene in half a year, or maybe form a committee, and give it another look, so forth and so on. There is no decision culture, and things can drag forever, even when people are generally sympathetic to the cause, just because they don't have a habit of working small things out in order to push something big forward.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Cheat sheet for a busy professor

I was asked by a colleague to share some hacks and cheats that make life of a SLAC professor easier. Here's a quick list I came up with:

  • Challenge every assignment: is it really needed? What purpose does it serve? Would a shorter / easier to grade assignment serve this purpose better?
  • Challenge the number of assignments: can you remove one? Don't create busywork.
  • Taking feedback is hard, so there's no point in critiquing more than one point at a time. If aspect A needs to be improved the most, don't even comment on aspect B for a while.
  • Students don't understand complicated rubrics, so don't use complicated rubrics.
  • Sometimes you don't need to prepare for classes in-depth, as most important confusions lie on the surface, and improvising with the blackboard, in dialogue with the students, may actually be more useful for them.
  • But if you need to prepare, prepare well so that you could reuse it fully next year.
  • If something didn't work, or you have an idea, write it down now; your future you (in a year) will be very grateful.
  • Use your own work / things you think about in your research at least once a semester; it makes it easier for you, and more fun for them.
  • Don't be afraid to teach fun topics instead of "useful topics"; "standard courses" are overrated. Your goal is not to bring them from point A to point B, but to encourage them to get there themselves. Emotion is more important than content or skill-drills.
  • Push as much work as you can to the students. Use things like reflective writing, discussions, pair-share, peer-review. Make them submit questions before class instead of generating all questions for them. Bounce their questions back to them. It so happens that most techniques that are proven to be more effective in teaching are also easier for the teacher, even if they feel risky and weird. Learn the best practices from good books, and use them to your advantage.
  • Integrate research with teaching in all ways possible.
  • Use labs for pilot experiments, to troubleshoot your methods.
  • Use honors theses for pilot experiments, to generate some data.
  • Bend upper college courses towards your current interests, to give you an excuse to read a few more reviews / primary papers.
Time management:
  • Schedule in chunks of few hours; don't break chunks. Don't give in to temptation to use these chunks for urgent matters. If it's research time, do research.
  • Do only things that are either important (even if they are unpleasant), or that you like to do (even if it feels that you're indulging yourself). Don't do kind-of-useful things that you don't like. Nobody cares about them anyway, and they drain your willpower stamina. Only critical strikes + fun stuff. That's what makes the difference.
  • Use some kind of a GTD-inspired time / e-mail / project management system. Google inbox seems promising, but I haven't used it yet. I use Google Keep, with a note for each project / class, and a checkbox for each action step.