Category Archives: school

The Form of Shame

Two years ago, in a mad rush of research-fueled productivity, I submitted a paper to a major conference in my field. It was a big accomplishment for me, as while I had co-authored a variety of papers on group research projects, this was the first such paper that really felt like my own. The web form by which I submitted the paper asked the usual information about my name, address and institutional affiliation that you might expect. It also asked a little question, “is the first author of the paper a student,” along with an explanation that student first authors would be eligible to be considered for a “best student paper award.” It had the additional caveat that students needed to be “full time students.” In my grad program, as in many others, we typically register as part-time students, but we can additionally be certified as full-time if we meet certain criteria, based on work load. While I was no longer taking classes, I was considered full-time by the university for my funding as a research assistant. So in submitting my paper, I checked the little box saying I was a student. I thought to myself that I should remember to officially change my status to “full time” when registering for the following semester. Then, as you might imagine, I promptly forgot about it.

Fast forward to the following Spring semester. I received notification that my paper had been accepted to the conference. Further, it had been accepted for a talk (rather than a poster), which is actually kind of a big deal for this particular conference, as they don’t have parallel sessions for talks. I had gotten really quite glowing reviews. I was thrilled. I felt validated! Successful! Like I was really making progress! Maybe I’d even win a prize!

And then I remembered the eligibility for the “best student paper” award. I was registered as part time. Crap.

I did some investigating and learned that it might still be possible to have my registration status changed, even though the semester had begun. I contacted some people and submitted the required “full-time certification” form.

And that was when I appeared to have awakened the dragon.

My late-arriving form got the attention of someone in the grad school office who apparently enjoys her job very much. She informed me that I had exceeded the time limit for my degree and would need to petition the graduate school in order to change my status, and in order to continue with my graduate studies. I had vaguely been aware of this process, but most friends I had from the program had not had to go through it, even though they had also exceeded the official time limits. They had somehow managed to fly under the radar. I, however, blithely skipped into the radar screen covered in flashing lights and a “kick me” sign stuck to my back.

And so it was that I first encountered The Form of Shame.¹ This innocuous-looking one-page document requires one to lay out each of the requirements of the degree, and list the dates for each of those that have been completed, and give agonizing detail and “expected completion dates” for those that aren’t done yet. When one’s progress through graduate school has been Slower Than Anticipated, such a form feels an awful lot like a big punch in the gut.

After spending a day or two in the fetal position, I pulled myself together and moved into action. I spent several days tying up loose ends for some requirements, and chasing down signatures. After various setbacks and more unanticipated hoops to jump through (including, at one point, being told by the same gleeful bureaucrat whose attentions I had first caught, that “the form had not yet been received at her office,” in spite of me having walked it there myself and handed it to the receptionist several days previously), I was eventually notified that my petition for a time extension had been granted until early 2014. After more setbacks and explosions of my head, I was finally informed that I was officially a full-time student. I received this news 2 days after I presented my talk in Shanghai. In all, the time from my first submitting the request to change of status to actually being granted this change was 2 full months. Over those months, there were dozens of emails sent, dozens of hours spent dealing with formalities, and immeasurable amounts of stress added to my efforts to actually do the work that would eventually lead to me getting the damn degree.

Fast forward to Friday, when I cheerfully dropped of my registration form for next semester at the graduate school office after spending a day running subjects on some new experiments. (You know, work that I’m supposed to be doing for my degree.) Feeling self-satisfied with both my research progress and having gotten some administrative hassles out of the way, I treated myself to a coffee from my favorite coffee shop before returning to my car for the long drive home. By the time I got back to my car, a quick peek at my phone revealed an email from someone whose name looked slightly familiar…

And so it begins again. As it turns out, the extension for time for my degree does not extend into next semester, and my registration cannot be processed until I once more submit the Form of Shame.

It gives me some degree of satisfaction to imagine the words of the email from this individual in the voice of Principal Snyder³. While I recognize that she is almost certainly “just doing her job,” I also can’t help but feel that she takes a certain pleasure in doing so.


¹ Not the official name of the form. The actual official form name is “Documentation to Justify Your Sorry Existence as A Delinquent Graduate Student.”²
² Maybe that’s not the name, either.
³ The principal from Buffy the Vampire Slayer who so relished the thought of keeping Buffy out of school:

Principal Snyder: I have not only the right, but also a nearly physical sensation of pleasure at the thought of keeping her out of school. I’d describe myself as tingly.

Image of stocks is a public domain image from wpclipart.com.

squeeze

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With the start of summer comes the end of structured school days. While there is lots of fun to be had, I still need to squeeze in time for my work. Picnics and visits with friends and fireworks and trips to the zoo don’t mean any less cooking, or food shopping, or laundry, or cleaning, (and in fact often mean more) and there are days when I find myself feeling squeezed. I optimistically promised my advisor that I’d get him a large chunk of writing done while he was away on vacation, but I foolishly did so without looking at my calendar, and observing the small number of child-free hours on it in those 2 weeks. When I find a 4-hour chunk of time to focus on my research, my thoughts start to get organized, but then comes the next over-full day and my thoughts scatter. Really, I’ve been enjoying the summer fun, and the extra time with the kids, but just now find myself wishing I could just do one thing or the other for a sustained time. Today I have maybe a 6-hour chunk to do squeeze out as much writing as I can while both kids are out of the house. (Just now I am trying to squeeze out this blog post as the kids eat breakfast. I have only been interrupted roughly 14 times.)

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Starting next week, the kids will both be in camps and childcare more-or-less full-time, so hopefully the squeeze will feel less tight. But if I’m actually going to finish this degree, I have to be prepared to keep on the tight squeeze, long-term. (Hold me.)

One year and half a world away

This is where I was, one year ago today:


I took this photo on a walk along the Bund in Shanghai.

I’m finding it hard to believe that another whole year has gone by. I feel like I have very little to show for it. A year ago today, I presented my research at a prestigious international conference. (Here I am, giving my talk. I even won an award.) Two days earlier I had walked along a stretch of the Great Wall near Beijing, one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of my life.

Two days ago, I barely left my house. The past year has been a blur of holidays and birthdays, laundry and grocery shopping, illness and death, laundry and grocery shopping, celebrations and family visits, and more laundry and grocery shopping. I know that I have been working and busy, but once again I feel like I don’t have enough to show for it. I’m really not even sure what my point was other than…damn. A whole ‘nother year. And I haven’t even posted my trip photos!

Fairy impersonator? (friday foto finder: insect)

When I was a sophomore in high school in California, I had a truly excellent biology teacher. The assignments were creative and varied, and the lessons I learned stuck with me long after the class ended. One of the major units we covered in that class was about the insect world. We learned about all of the orders of insects. A major assignment was to collect, identify and classify insects from as many of the orders as we could. For some orders, it was ridiculously easy to find specimens. Hymenoptera (which includes ants, bees & wasps), diptera (including mosquitos and houseflies), coleoptera (beetles), lepidoptera (moths & butterflies) were a dime a dozen, with multiple species of each of those orders crossing our paths regularly. Others required a bit more persistence, hunting through the grass and under rocks, or stalking the porch light at night.

My best friend and I participated in the project with the same competitive/collaborative spirit that drove our academic success, collecting and comparing our insects with interest and enthusiasm. She, who felt revulsion for earwigs, collected her dermaptera specimen with triumph. I, with my aversion to moths, likewise felt satisfaction in including a feathery-antennaed hymenoptera specimen in my own collection. I don’t remember how many orders we each managed to represent in total, but I want to say that it was somewhere around 17 or 18. (I seem to recall that my friend managed to find one that I hadn’t, a fact which she playfully lorded over me.)

That project forever changed how I look at insects.

Living in the woods in rural Massachusetts, we sometimes get wildlife in our yard and around our house. Sometimes, the wildlife makes its way into the house. Once such bit of wildlife was this character, which turned up in our kitchen one June evening in 2010. It had a long segmented body, perhaps 2 and half inches long, and large lacy wings. I was, naturally, fascinated.


Hi.

John and I captured it in a plastic tub with the aim of releasing it. I took a few pictures of it, but sadly, they are blurry in the poor lighting conditions. Also contributing to the blur was the fact that the insect was moving constantly, and I found it hard to get my eyes to focus on it, let alone my camera. The long body and the dramatic wings had an ethereal look to them, and I wondered if sighting of such creatures in the wild, fluttering about in people’s peripheral vision, may have contributed to belief in fairies. (Compare this little guy to the mummified fairy remains highlighted on Raincoaster. If you want to study interesting specimens of humanity, some of whom claim belief in fairies, you might have a look at the comments of that post. 2220 comments to date, many of them very entertaining.)


I’m bigger than your little finger.

Having ruled out that we had captured a fairy, I did wonder what exactly we had caught.

I wondered if it might be a large mayfly, (order ephemeroptera, among the more poetically named orders, reflecting the ephemeral nature of their adults’ lives). However, I think it is too large to be one. Additionally, it is missing the long cerci that mayflies have.

Most likely, it is a kind of fishfly, of the order megaloptera. (Apparently the designation of megaloptera as a separate order from neuroptera is relatively recent–I don’t know when this separation happened, though. It may not have been among the orders I learned about in high school.) Megaloptera, as you might guess from the mega prefix, are known to be large. (They are named for their large wings.)


Can I go now, please?

This week’s friday foto finder challenge was to find photos of insect(s). Unlike urban-dwelling az, who resorted to posting other invertebrates, I have quite a few photos of insects in my archives. (Ah, the perks of rural life.) I even have several posts on different insects. I have two ThThTh lists of moth things and butterfly things (order lepidoptera), plus some posts of my own photos of butterflies (again, lepidoptera) and fireflies (order coleoptera). I’m particularly fond of this one, eat or be eaten, which documents the unlucky encounter of a spider (an arachnid, and not an insect) with a damselfly (order odonata).

fff 200x60To see what other specimens have been caught for this week’s assignment, buzz, flit or crawl over to the friday foto finder blog.

I am weary

The past few weeks have knocked the wind out of me. I hardly know where to begin, there is so much to say. The biggest news, at least for my family, was that John’s father died. It was not unexpected. It was not fast. It was also not easy.

Just over 2 weeks ago, we got the call that John’s father was not expected to survive the night. As you might imagine, there was much travel, and rearranging of plans. John was able to travel to New York to be with his parents for his father’s last few days. I stayed home with the kids. Things were complicated by Theo having a fever one day, then getting pink eye the next, which meant missed school for him, missed work time for me, and more trauma than I would have expected dealing with the medication. (This was Theo’s first sick visit to the doctor, which itself was remarkable.) Phoebe managed to pick up her first case of poison ivy, a bad one, including welts on her face around both eyes. This led to a doctor’s trip and missed school for her, too. Then there was the funeral. Phoebe ended up missing a whole week of school. This week is her school vacation. And did I mention the stomach bug that hit Phoebe Sunday night?

These were the weeks that I was supposed to be working intensively to make a last push to try to finish my degree. Time is limited before my subject pool, the BU undergrads, is taken away by finals and the end of the term. I have now lost 2 full weeks of work time. The only day that was not taken up by sick kids or travel or memorial services and time with extended family was one that I spent shopping for something to wear to the funeral.

My days are eaten up. My energy is eaten up. My motivation and momentum for my research have all but left the building. I have been trying to push through, in the windows of time that open up here and there.

But next comes a terrorist attack in Boston, and the wind is knocked out of me again. I was not there, but I am shocked and grieving. 3 dead and over 170 injured in a blast at Copley Square, a place I know well. The news that one of the dead was a child of 8 hit hard. The news that another was a BU grad student hit hard again. The realization that my friends and family from far away might be worried about my family hit me again. We could have been there.

I am steady in times of crisis. Strong and reliable, I keep pushing through. I know that I have to keep going until the crisis time is over. But I am strained and drained. I am edgy and touchy. I am slipping.

This is not the worst crisis I can imagine. This is not even the worst crisis I or my family have lived through. I remind myself every day how lucky I am to have John and my children here with me, safe and (largely) healthy. My mother and my sister and her family are safe and well. I have financial stability, a home, and wonderful friends. I am very, very lucky. But I admit that I am tired, and I just wish I could have a few days to catch my breath. At this point, I’d settle for one.

But this method doesn’t work with a tomato.

It was my second year of college, in ’90 or ’91, and I sat at a desk in a classroom with maybe a dozen other students of second-year Japanese. The first year, the class had been much bigger, with a good 30 or 40 students. But the workload was heavy, and the grading tough. The enrollment had been whittled down.

The teaching methods were pretty old-school, with textbooks that were probably from the 50s. We did a lot of in-class drills.

That particular day, we were learning the expression “to use something as something else.” (“X to shite Y o tsukaimasu.”) The instructor gave us some examples. He picked up two pencils, and held them as if they were chopsticks. Hashi to shite empitsu o tsukaimasu, he intoned in his booming fluent-but-American-accented Japanese. “I use pencils as chopsticks.” Then he asked for more examples from the class using the construction.

“Use a rope as a belt,” someone might have said. “I use a book as a tray,” someone else might have offered.

I really can’t remember what examples my classmates came up with. Because as I sat there, I needed all of my concentration to contain the urge to giggle. The one sentence that popped into my head was: Nihon de wa, naihu to shite te o tsukaimasu.¹

In Japan, the hand is used like a knife.²

I’m sad to say that I was not called upon to share my example. I was relieved at the time, as I had not yet released my inner goofball. Also, it’s hard to say how the very serious instructor would have taken my contribution. Especially had it been accompanied by uncontrollable fits of giggling.


¹ Google translate helped me arrive at this:
日本 で は ナイフ として手を使います. There was once a time when I could have written this sentence without looking it up, but that day has long passed. Also, I only wrote Japanese by hand. I would have had no idea how to type any of it!
² The actual wording from the 1978 Ginsu commercial is: “In Japan, the hand can be used like a knife.”

The Accursed Book Review

Once upon a time there was a young graduate student, or if not young, at least one who as yet had no gray hairs on her head, who embarked on her journey towards the degree of Doctorate of Philosophy with great optimism and arrogance. She was confident that she would not be one of those for whom large numbers of harvests would pass before reaping the Golden Fruits of Doctorhood. Her hubris angered the gods of Mount Academia, who saw fit to place a curse that the student would forever make progress, forever see the end in sight, but forever get distracted by Other Things, until such day as her hair turned gray and her University turned her out.

Back when I started my PhD program, I imagined that I’d work through my various pre-dissertation requirements in a timely way. I mean, everyone knows it’s hard to finish a dissertation, right? But the other stuff, well that’s not such a big deal. I was already ahead in terms of course requirements, and in having completed my Master’s, had a head start on some other major requirements. Practically a Mere Technicality, the Book Review was to be something on a par with a course project. All you had to do was pick a relatively recent linguistics book, read it, and write a 12 to 15 page review.

Officially, according to the program requirements, it should be completed in the first year of PhD studies. (Not that most do.) Having received my Master’s in the fall of 2004, that was when I officially started the PhD program. I was on a reasonably reasonable schedule, picking my review book in that first year or so. I set to reading it. Slowly. Very, very slowly I read it. At some point, I lost it. Then found it. Probably realized I didn’t remember what I’d read. Started to reread it. Come 2006 I had read the book, but hadn’t yet written anything, when I experienced what might be considered a distraction from my studies. At some point later, John (my husband) tried to talk me into getting a Kindle. As a selling point, he told me about some books he found that were available. “They even have that one you keep falling asleep reading.” Yeah, that would be the Damned Book Review book.

A couple of years and another distraction later, my advisor and I agreed that I should pick a new book for the Damned Book Review. We picked a newly released updated edition by a noted person in my field. I plowed in diligently, being sure to take careful notes this time as I went. I was Determined. But then I realized along the way that reviewing a new edition should involve comparing it to the old one, which I had read before, but years earlier. I’d have to go through it again. The task went slowly. I got demoralized, thinking that I wasn’t really a great person to review the book. I mean, I had met with and corresponded with the author, who, as I said, was a quite well known person in my field. Who was I to criticize?

Come late 2010, I switched once more to a more recent book, this time by an author I’d never met! Who worked in my field, but a different analytic tradition! Yeah, I could critique that. I dug in. But I don’t know, other things came up along the way that were a higher priority. I’d read a chapter or 2, and then get caught up in some new wave of work deadlines or family crisis. Back in April or so I was provoked to make a new push to get through some more of my requirements, including the Damned Book Review. (Remind me to tell you about the Form of Shame.) I finished reading and had amassed 40 pages of notes. I was getting so freakin’ close. But not quite close enough. I had to switch gears to get ready for my trip to China and my presentation there. Next thing you know another couple of months and several new crunches and deadlines have passed before I got myself back to the Damned Book Review. Last week, suddenly free of other pressing deadlines, I dug back in.

And you know what? Today, while sitting in my in-laws’ basement and keeping Theo company while he rode a vintage tricycle around in circles and played with a pile of vintage matchbox cars, I reached a point that could be considered…good enough to send a draft to my advisor.

So, maybe not done. But 3 books and 8 years later, damn if it isn’t doner than it’s ever been.

crunchy bits and squeezy bits and cranky bits

I started this post a week ago. I have a lot of drafts of posts lying around collecting dust. Seriously, I must have well over a hundred draft posts in various stages of completion. And seriously, I think they are dusty. Some of them even have cobwebs.

Life has been hectic again (when hasn’t it?) and I’m trying to fit all the bits and pieces together.

A large item that’s been on my mind is that I’m finally going to try to make a push to finish my degree. Sadly, I am really not all that close, even to being ABD. I finished my coursework ages ago. But coursework was the easy part, what with the structure and the regular, manageable assignments with regular, manageable deadlines. My other requirements are larger and more nebulous, with typically much fuzzier deadlines. I have this bad tendency to push off my own research until I’ve worked my way through my other obligations. The trouble is that my other obligations manage quite easily to fill up all of my available time.

Since May, Phoebe and Theo have been in childcare 5 days a week, an increase from the 3 or 4 days they had been going. This gives me more available time. In theory. In practice, there have been more weeks than not during which there was at least one holiday, vacation day, or sick day. Since May I have travelled to a conference in Chicago for work, visited my family in California, visited my in-laws in New York several times, had a short trip to New Hampshire, a visit to New York City for BlogHer, and then most recently another trip to Chicago for a funeral. My job has kept me busy with deadlines for conferences and papers, plus meetings and running subjects. Our house continues to kick my butt, with its demands for upkeep. My head has been full of concern for family and friends.

Each time I have gone back to my own research, I have had to regroup, and remind myself of what I was doing, what I’d done last, and what I was about to do. (I’m working on figuring out better systems for keeping myself on track and moving forward, but I will probably save that for another post.)

I know that I can do better than this. I feel like I’ve just been making excuses. I used to be an effective and productive person. I’m trying to get there again, and right now it feels a lot like crunching. I’m trying to squeeze everything tighter to make room for my research. Honestly, all this compression has made me cranky.

One of the few places I can find time to squeeze is my time spent online. Since I rarely get to see friends in person, I’ve been clinging to my online world, the interactions with friends I see in blogland and on Facebook. But I have to cut back. I have started cutting back. (In the last couple of months or so, I’ve had several unhappy exchanges and experiences that have soured my online world and that has helped me pull back. Though, again with the cranky.)

Since I started blogging several years ago, I have spent a lot of my time offline (such as while I’m driving or doing laundry or dealing with other largely thoughtless tasks) thinking about my life online. Often thinking about posts I’ve read, or posts I’d like to write. I somehow need to shift my focus so that I spend that time thinking about articles I’ve read and papers I should be writing.

I’m not saying I’m going to quit blogging, but I can’t participate as much I have in the past. I probably will start leaving even fewer comments, even though I intend to keep reading posts.

I still hope to post here from time to time. Maybe even a couple of times a week if I can do so in a constrained amount of time. I hope to dust off some of the drafts that have been piling up for the past several years, and maybe I’ll still manage to get out some of the ones that have been cluttering up my head.

I’ve been sticking with Project 365, taking and posting at least one picture a day, and that will probably continue to be my main creative outlet. Taking pictures is something I can do in a few minutes if I need to, or that I can do during my time spent with Phoebe and Theo.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this post, but it feels like I’ve been leaving my blog hanging.


This photo doesn’t really have anything to do with anything in this post, but I like it.

Advanced Topics in Procrastination

The Department of Procrastinatory Arts and Sciences at Big Urban University announces its Fall, 2008 course offerings:

PR 101: Introduction to Procrastination
Topics covered include puttering, stalling, and dawdling for beginners. Required of all students working towards degrees in Procrastination. (Requirement may be waived if the student has avoided registering for the course for 3 or more semesters.)
Instructor: TBD

PR 125: Procrastinators Throughout History
Leaders, visionaries, revolutionaries. This survey course highlights the great procrastinators of the world and the accomplishments they would have been famous for, had they ever managed to complete them.
Instructor: Putterington

PR 126: Procrastinators Throughout History II: The Arts
This course examines the works of the Grand Masters of Procrastination. Students will learn to appreciate the unfinished symphonies, uncompleted novels and half-painted canvases that might have rivalled the finished works of the artists’ better known contemporaries.
Instructor: TBA

Procrastinating 225: Special Topics in Procrastination
Details on the course topic are expected to be available by the fourth week of the semester, by which time the professor hopes to have finished writing the syllabus. Or at least started it.
Instructor: McDawdle

PR 234: Getting Things Partially Done
This hands-on productivity course will help speed you along in the steps from thinking about doing something, getting started in deciding to get something started, and starting to get something done that will look like progress towards the accomplishment of things.
Instructor: TB

PR 235: Putting Things Off
Postponed until Spring semester

Other courses, which are planned for some time later:
PR 175: The Science of Stalling and the Fine Art of Puttering About
PR 187: The Procrastinator in Contemporary Society
PR 285: Creative Time Mismanagement
PR 335: Advanced Seminar in Dawdling

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This course bulletin is offered up for this week’s Monday Mission, which asked for posts in the form of course descriptions.