Shaking my Cane at Google, etc.

hand shaking cane

My father’s blackthorn cane. It has knobs on.

My institution, like most, has a set of random little jobs faculty should be doing. Open House days, committees, various events, various assessments (don’t ask)… they’re part of our job, we know they are part of our job, we know they’re important, but they feel like extras.

When I first began, we had a method for scheduling these which consisted of panicked announcements from the chair right before the (usually weekend-scheduled) event, followed by some untenured keener or over-responsible elder stepping up, or by the chair doing it themself. A trail of guilt, self-justification, and resentment dragged after this process.

So when I became chair, I instituted a highly sophisticated method of assigning these, based on years spent studying the relevant psychological literature (not). We listed all these events, with their dates and the number of people needed, on a sheet of paper and passed it around at the first division meeting of the year. Everybody signed up for their share and put their responsibilities into their calendars1. After the meeting, the division secretary sent the information on the list to the various offices that needed to know who was staffing their events.

This may have been my major contribution as division chair.

So why did I receive three frantic emails in the past week about events that needed staffing, and find that our current division chair is picking one of them up at the last minute? Two words: Google docs.(Correction; it is some other platform designed for volunteer sign-ups)

The departments that run these events have decided it would be so much more efficient, instead of getting information from our secretary (who no longer exists) to theirs (who probably no longer exists either), to put all the signups on google docs, etc.2, 3, 4. No longer do we pass around a sheet of paper with dates we can compare to our calendars, and sign it in full view of our colleagues; now we are asked to individually, at our own convenience, log into a separate page for each event and volunteer (or not) in the privacy of our own offices.

Well, would you? Would you take time out from what you’re doing to open a document and fill out a form in order to volunteer for something you don’t really want to do?

Yeh, I didn’t either. So I was just as much to blame as anybody for the spate of panicked emails this week. Though I saved my butt by being available for a last-minute fill-in, which turned out not to need me after all. So I’m golden, and it’s the rest of you sluggards who are on the hook.

At our next division meeting, I will have a sheet of duties to pass around. And if anybody asks me why, I will shake my cane at them.


1. I’m glad to report that the Royal Academy still uses the paper method for scheduling this stuff. That’s what starts all the trouble in Kindling.

2. However, I probably have to create an equivalent of google docs for the Academy, just to keep my work up to date. Of course a demon will be involved. I maintain that a demon already is involved,.

3. I had my computer exorcised. True story. For another post.

4. I am totally going to write an Osyth story in which firing the secretary lets the demons in.

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We Have to Keep the Program Going, Right?

Doing the right thing. It's important. What does it mean in business? We have no idea. We know what wrong is. Actually, no, we don't. Because we're a successful company, not some boring ethics professor. Veridian Dynamics. Right and wrong. It means something. We just don't know what.

Veridian Dynamics poster from Better Off Ted, the show you should be watching. Right now.

When I was in graduate school, we talked about professional ethics a lot.  Would it be acceptable to take a job with a company that developed chemical warfare, that polluted, that destroyed the natural environment, that trashed communities?  We veered between two extremes; one in which scientists were basically hired guns, and society got to set the tasks they were hired to do (who were we to make society’s ethical decisions for it?) and one in which we had an obligation to ourselves and the world to refuse to work in industries we thought unethical.

I felt very smug about these debates, because I intended to teach undergraduates and therefore the question did not trouble me. Teaching undergraduates would be ethical by both proposed standards.  And it is.  I teach nurses, and it is Right Livelihood.

But not all college professors can say the same, in the adjunct era.  I’ve been particularly acerbic about graduate faculty, their responsibility for the overproduction of PhDs, and their silence about it, and recently I actually got to tax one of them with it — a person I know to be personally ethical and honorable, and who admitted that many of their program’s PhD students would have a very hard time getting jobs.

“Why are you producing them, then?” I asked, and the grad prof made one of those helpless, hand-spreading gestures.

“We need to keep our graduate program going.”

I’m betting that’s the answer I’d get from most graduate faculty.  They’ve taken the job in a program, and they need to keep it going.  They never expected that they would find themselves atop a pyramid scheme.  I applied for plenty of university jobs back in the day, and if I’d gotten one of them I would be in these folks’ position.  But no matter how sympathetic I feel, these graduate programs are destroying the vocations they claim to support.

“Why do you need to keep your graduate program going?” I asked.  “The country’s projected to graduate 5 times as many PhDs as there are jobs for them.”

My grad prof friend shuddered and put their hands over their ears.  Literally.

And that’s the way it is as of this graduation day, 2019.

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My Wish was Granted

Highway arrow reading 'TRUTH'

Alpha Stock Images – Usd under a Creative Commons license.

Remember my kvetching that we needed to hear something about the adjunctivization crisis from those conveniently silent PhD supervisors?

Well, here’s one speaking up. I thought Michael Johnson Jr. had just written another of those pieces on how we all-powerful teaching faculty should force our institutions into concessions, but what did I find in it? Some straight talk for the PhD producers.

First, we need to be brutally honest with our doctoral students. We must carefully assess if the numbers of graduates we’re producing are equal to the market demand. In fields where there’s an overabundance, we need to reduce admissions of Ph.D. students to, at minimum, single digits…

we also need to extricate ourselves from this prestige economy whereby the number of doctoral students becomes a de facto metric of departmental success. Our participation in this system can create a perverse incentive for some departments to actually increase their enrollment of doctoral students — even going so far as to offer them no funding at all — just to appear “productive” as a unit. That not only perpetuates pernicious overabundance in some disciplines but is also grossly unethical…

Finally, we must stop lying to ourselves and to the graduate students to whom we have a professional obligation to tell the truth.

Sure, there are things we should try to get our institutions to do for adjuncts. But none of us have much power when there is a constant flood of potential adjuncts desperate enough to accept any contract. That flood has to stop at the source, and I am so grateful to see one person at the headwaters who realizes this.

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Nobody’s Ally

Soubor:Vlajka straight ally (hetero spojence).jpg – Wikipedie. Public Domain.

I’m nobody’s ally.  Colleagues have stickers on their doors proclaiming that they are allies of this and that, but all I post is a sign-up calendar and (in winter) a notice proclaiming it to be the coldest office on campus.

It’s because I don’t know what the term ‘ally’ will mean to students.  What will they expect to find inside an office labeled ‘ally?’

When I look the term up, I find a lot of stuff about keeping quiet and listening and then using your position of privilege to signal-boost the message you’ve listened to.  I’m fine with listening, but I will not uncritically signal-boost other people’s opinions, or support and promote actions I have questions about. Which, I think, would make me a nuisance rather than an ally.

I also find suggestions that allies should be more or less educated in the cause they’ve allied themselves with, its priorities and social conventions. By this criterion, I don’t even count as an ally to my own demographic.

Some of my colleagues define it as providing a safe space in which to discuss the topic, and a sympathetic, respectful listener.  I can imagine, for instance, a student looking at my colleague’s door and knowing that this is an office in which same-sex relationship issues or DACA status or mental illness can be brought up without having to rephrase them to conceal the details.  Without having to first ask oneself, Will this prof be cool with it, or be a jerk about it?  Am I making a huge mistake?

I’d like students – especially students with the most insecurities, the most at risk – to know that about me, without having to go to the trouble of watching and wondering and making inferences, and without any feeling that they’re taking a leap of faith when they first bring the issue up. I wish there were a word that meant unambiguously that.  But it’s a tall order to want a word that will mean ‘uncritically sympathetic with your situation, but not to be counted on for uncritical support of anything else.’

Perhaps I should just post a paragraph on my door. Or perhaps we shouldn’t ever need to post that message on any doors, because it should be the bare minimum students are entitled to expect in every office on campus.

Though it comes at the issue from a different angle, I’d be remiss if I didn’t post a link to this fantastic article on allyship from The Unit of Caring.

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A Monster Calls (if only!)

Cover of 'A Monster Calls' by Patrick Nss; monster striding through the darkness toward a house.My book club read A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

I understand that this book has been made into a movie.  Pro tip: if you want me to remain totally ignorant about something, just make it into a movie.  Anyway, I had never heard of it and came to it with a clean slate.

I still can’t figure out what the monster’s stories were meant to indicate, or how the first two tied in with the boy’s situation, but overall this book was an easy read.  It probably just wasn’t aimed at me, I thought.  After all, I could guess what his dream was about from the first moment it was mentioned; this book was probably meant for people who either couldn’t or wouldn’t leap to that conclusion.

Thing is, though, the more days that have gone by since we discussed the book, the more I’ve been feeling maybe it was aimed at me.  Because (trying mightily to avoid spoilers, but why bother? Anybody who reads this blog will also jump to the correct conclusion within the first three pages of the book) once you step away from the specific issue in the book, the bigger problem of crap nobody will tell you about fills up all our lives.

Somebody resigned but nobody can tell you why because confidentiality.  This local business is unionizing, but nobody will confirm the reason because negotiations. That other one may be going under, but for them to admit that would be a self-fulfilling prophesy.  If negotiations go badly, this world leader will do thus and such — unless they’re just bluffing.  All the candidates agree on this policy, until they pivot after the primaries.

“You might say so, but I couldn’t possibly comment.” Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart; image from Wikimedia.

The more you look around, the more you see that you are surrounded, totally surrounded, by lies and secrets and things people aren’t allowed to say, think it’s unproductive to admit, believe you would react poorly to, are kindly protecting you from (and to be fair, even when they do cut the crap, you have trouble understanding or believing it.  Because communication is not all that, folks.  Your own brain does all that stuff to you, as well.)

I have a low, low tolerance for this sort of bullshit, even when I can see that it’s unavoidable.  That’s why I went into biology. In fact, it’s why I went into ichthyology.  I remember thinking to myself, some fifty years ago, that it would have to be either fish or insects because the higher vertebrates were too likely to lie to me.  And humans, well they were out of the question entirely.  There was no truth in them, including me.  You might as well just make stuff up for yourself as try to build on what humans told you.

By and large I still feel that way.  That’s why I divide a lot of my time between biology and making stuff up for myself.  Because if you let yourself get too invested in what people can or can’t, will or won’t tell you, pretty soon all you want is for it to be over already.

I guess that book really was for me, after all.

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Yes, I’m one of those people who ignore climate change articles

man screaming with caption, 'Care about my issue! Now!!!'

image modified from Crosa via wikimedia. Used under a Creative Commons license.

I read an article this morning about why people ignore climate change articles, no matter how horrific the predictions are.

I’m a big-time climate change article ignorer, even though I’m not skeptical about its existence at all, so I thought I could offer an explanation.  Of course we ignore those scary articles!  Becoming emotionally invested in something you cannot affect is a recipe for hopeless misery, and people who ask you to do it are not your friends.

If the people writing these scare pieces presented effective ways for us to make a difference, lots of us would be eager to cooperate. Instead, their idea too often seems to be to get the rest of us upset enough to do things — like devoting ourselves to political activism, or coming up with solutions — that they aren’t willing to do themselves. That means they are speaking from a position of helplessness to start with. What other message will their articles be able to convey?

Somebody once told me, ‘people won’t follow you because they don’t want to end up where you are,’ and that advice was never more relevant than when looking at these articles.  The last place I want to be is so upset about a looming catastrophe that I have to sit on my butt behind a computer trying to convince other people to devote their lives to fixing it.  (Plus, having an academic job in the current climate means I’m paid to endure that situation at work, so why would I do it for free in my spare time?)

In the latest scare article, Wallace-Wells says ‘What creates more sense of urgency than fear?’  The answer is, hope.  One Green New Deal proposal outweighs a thousand scare articles in motivating people to care about the issue. When you are actually doing something about an issue, rather than just trying to motivate other people to do something, you have this kind of hope to offer, and people are eager to sign on.

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Font Styles for Metallic Text in Word

samples of metallic text in gold and silverOnce upon a time, Microsoft Word was one of the best graphic programs out there IMO. I speak as a non-power user, who got Word free at my job.

Anyway, I could do everything I wanted/was able to do on Word, and one of the things I wanted was metallic text.  As is obvious from this blog’s header.

It must run in the family, because this week my brother asked me to make him something with metallic text; but I discovered that Word 2016 no longer had those automatic gradients that I had applied to Word Art with such unrestrained glee back in the day.  I was able to recapture them from some old files, however, and so I have created a Word document to house them in, and converted them to quick text styles.

Here’s the link to it, if you too are suffering bling withdrawal. It has text in shapes, regular text, and a few decorative odds and ends I’m working on. Feel free to save a copy and then you too will have all my metallic text and object fills as I accumulate them.

Microsoft is probably only trying to correct my aesthetic, but taste will out.


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Where are PhD Supervisors in the Conversation about Adjuncts?

Billboard 1944 Oak Ridge. Public Domain.

I’ve been in lots of online conversations about adjunctification, and somebody always asks why we keep producing more PhDs than the market will bear. The answer? Crickets.

I’ve just realized it’s a meaningless question — at least, the ‘we’ part of it. Because the people in those conversations aren’t the ones producing excess PhDs. In fact, talking as if this were a general problem of academia obscures the main issue; faculty who produce PhDs benefit from producing excess PhDs, while faculty who don’t produce PhDs are hurt by the production of excess PhDs.

One group of us is doing something that hurts another group of us, while we go on talking as if we were all in this together. We lump tenured faculty together, when one group of tenured faculty is causing the problem and the other groups are suffering from it. Then we argue for hours about what the second group can do about the problem, while the first group keep their mouths shut as if they have nothing of interest to contribute.

I’m tired of being told that ‘tenured faculty’ should solve the adjunctification crisis by meeting, communicating, complaining, educating parents, arguing with administrators, etc. etc. — as if ‘tenured faculty’ were a meaningful category in this problem.  We need to hear from PhD-producing faculty. We need to hear how, and when, they are going to reduce the number of students they supervise. And if they’re not, we need to know why not, and learn about those constraints.

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Acts and Omissions by Catherine Fox

Cover of Acts and Omissions by Catherine FoxIf Susan Howatch and Miss Read wrote a book together, it would probably be like this. Take the sorts of problems Howatch’s clergy face, and the same level of Close inside baseball, and cross it with short-chapter English countryside cozy, and here you have it… so cozy, in fact, that at first I wasn’t sure the author had a plot in mind rather than a sweet, meandering ‘Year In…’

But Acts and Omissions has a plot with plenty of surprises in it, though some of the entanglements its characters fell into were predictable and I never did figure out why everybody loved Freddie, who I found terribly tiresome.  Obviously people needed to help Freddie, and they were all professional christians so I could see why they would stiffen the upper lip and do it, but why did so many of them love him? Well, he will apparently be back in the next volume and I may figure it out then.

The characters I did love were Archdeacon Voldemort, Professor Jane, and Bishop Bob.  How can you not admire a professor who, when almost hit by a car on a one-way street, kicks in its door?  Or a courtship carried on by hostile gifs and youtube links? Then there are Father Wendy and Father Dominic, who I am so afraid the author intends to entangle in Freddie’s snares in the second volume.

I’m a big fan of Authorial Voice, and this is a gold mine for Voice junkies.  Fox doesn’t use Omniscient so much as Capricious. She sets up arbitrary rules for the story and comments on them every time they constrain the narrative and/or are ignored because they constrain the narrative.  She denies or reaffirms readers’ apparent expectations about the plot, and stops the action when it becomes obvious that we need another lecture in Anglican 101. Nor does she fail to tell us everything we need to know about the characters, bit or otherwise, as they pop up.  Reading something like this, after a long long era of tight third or first-person, is like taking your shoes off and stretching out on the couch.

So once again, I’ve bought the rest of the series. At extremely reasonable kindle prices.

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A Philistine Reads About Art

I’ve read too many fantasy books about artists recently and it has left me with a tendency to slam things down on the table and shout ‘Bullshit!’ at intervals, which was not a good way to begin mandatory inservice at my job… but that’s another story. To proceed:

Fantasy authors who write about art are pretty certain to be in favor of it. So the books I read presented art as a vital source of deep insight and mystical power, the key to solving the problems of humans and faerie alike, yadda yadda, and after a thousand pages or so of this I began to ask myself ‘What vital purpose have these authors achieved with their art? What problems of humans and faerie alike have they solved with it? What have they done that authors of the past didn’t do in their spare time, after completing jobs that really made a difference in the world?”

I really like art, don’t misunderstand me, and all that kept me out of it in my youth was the complete lack of representational art in the art department at my alma mater.  I follow artists’ blogs and go to galleries.  My old grad school letters are more full of plots for unwritten novels than of anything to do with my research, and as recently as fifteen years ago I was still considering a program in scientific illustration. But I’m also prone to questions like this, which is why it’s a good thing I picked science over art when I chose my major. And it’s a good thing that I ended up in a job where I teach pathophysiology to nurses, rather than the ichthyology/ evolutionary biology position I was aiming at, which would have had very similar weak spots. It’s even better luck that I ended up in an outcomes-based curriculum, where my desire not to waste students’ time with a single thing they will not actually use is an asset.

Perhaps that’s why I have such a strong negative reaction to these books; they give me the shivers, making me realize what a close call I’ve had and how easily I might have ended up in a career I felt defensive about.

One of my main goals in life is to not do things I have to feel defensive about, so asking me to enter imaginatively to the life of someone in that position is setting yourself up to be judged harshly, by high standards. This issue is an important one to me. I do not welcome frivolous, predetermined, self-serving depictions of it. If an author is going to raise it, raise it! Give me an honest discussion of the strongest arguments against your position and the well-supported reply that I would need to be able to give myself every morning as I looked in the mirror, if I had gone into the arts. Otherwise, why bring it up at all?


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