Six Things you Can Do when People Say Stupid Sexist Shit To You

Part of being a woman in Science is having your male (and, more rarely, female) colleagues bolt off-leash and say crazy shit to you on a regular basis. When I was seventeen I told my Calculus professor that I wanted to major in Math and he asked, “Why? So you can solve integrals in your bikini for dirty old men?” During the years that followed I heard “Probably they just needed a woman on the interview list” and “Why aren’t you home with your baby?” I fully expect to hear “Why aren’t you and your shriveled old uterus dead yet?” before it’s all over. In my old age, I’ve realized that I can’t make the stupid comments stop. I would if I could. I would wave my Good Witch magic wand and about five percent of the guys in the world would shut the f*ck up about ten percent of the time. But I can’t. So what can I do? I can present to you an incomplete list of your options.

Six Things you Can Do when People Say Stupid Sexist Shit To You

1. You can detach. When my son started little league they had to explain to me which one was the bat and which one was the ball, but I’ve learned a lot since then. For example, my son plays third base and if he makes a crap throw the first baseman can’t be blamed for not catching it. I’ve decided that human communication is also like this. If some bozo wings a wild crap verbal throw toward me, I don’t expect myself to catch it. I generally watch it go by like “That was a wild crap verbal throw. Your error.” They can say it, but I don’t have to take it in.

2. You can react honestly. Some say that you should just blow this stuff off and not let it get to you. That’s not only bullshit, it’s also pretty much impossible. One of your options is to say whatever comes into your head. I’ve used “Do I get to tell you what I think of you now?” and “I think that about half of what comes out of your mouth is garbage.” I was at a meeting where a male colleague (actually, my supervisor) brought up my single solitary review. It says, “Class sux its way to hard But shes hawt so at least theres something to look at”. My colleague guessed that this had flattered me. I answered him, “No it doesn’t, it hurts. It hurts to be called a ‘thing’.” Everyone present got uncomfortable as hell, and possibly thought me weak and whiny, but I asserted my dignity by claiming that hurt. The internet said that I am a “thing”. I say that I am not a “thing”. I am right.

3. You can smile. I also like this one. I smile a Mona Lisa smile and say, “I’m going to remember that you said that.” Then I quietly and physically stand my ground. I maintain eye contact and continue to listen. This greatly unnerves the bozo because people don’t much listen to each other any more, and people may not generally listen to this guy in particular. I claim the few square feet that I am standing upon and I will not be moved. I let him run away from me.

4. You can lawyer up. This one is tricky because not every horrible stupid thing a bozo can say to you meets the criteria for Sexual Harassment according to the terms set forth by your institution. I recommend familiarizing yourself with the policies (both state and corporate) that apply to your workplace. If you suspect they’ve been violated, you can say, “You know what? I know the laws on Sexual Harassment and you’re dancing on the edge of some ugly shit.” Will Dr. Bozo treat you differently after this? Hell YES, but that’s kind of the point. It’s better for both of you if he knows where you stand, and let’s face it, you were never going to be BFFs anyway. But guess what? Sometimes after you charge the air, they change their tune. I know, I know — it seems impossible, but sometimes they actually do.

5. You can simply keep going. It’s not only your short-term response, but your long-term response that matters here. Whether they know it or not, they say this stuff because they want you to go away. One way to win the argument decisively is just not to go away. Every day that I don’t go away is my victory. Maybe I’ve done some bad science, done it poorly, f*cked up and slid back – but I never went away. Yes, there were men who told me that I couldn’t do Science, and here I am doing it. And that’s how I know that they were wrong. That’s how I know that they are wrong about you too.

6. You can find your own style. There’s no right or wrong way to survive a car crash. Give yourself permission to react in the moment the way that seems natural, authentic, strategic, safe, whatever. You and your self-worth are what’s important here, not them. For me, it’s simple. Almost as simple as they told me I was.


Are you a guy who doesn’t say stupid sexist shit to women? Good for you, here’s a cookie <<nom nom>>. Here’s also a bunch of bossy advice about how to be an ally.

How to Turn A “Good” Proposal Into An “Excellent” Proposal in Eight Admittedly Arduous Steps

I’ve reviewed a lot of proposals lately and it has made me cranky, so here I am trying to teach the Hungry Man how to Fish and thus Eat for a Lifetime. I’ll be blunt: Have you been getting evaluations of “good” on your grant proposals? If yes, then you really need this information.

How to Turn A “Good” Proposal Into An “Excellent” Proposal in Eight Admittedly Arduous Steps

1. Do the Math.  You’ve already done the budget, right? Because budgeting work comes apart in your hands like dry f*cking cornbread, creating more and more crummy little tasks as you handle it until suddenly it’s done and you’re not totally sure what happened, but you do have an excel file with a grand total figure somewhere near the bottom. Write this big fat number on the back of your hand with a Sharpie and stare at it for a few days. You know what? That number represents a crapton of money by anyone’s standards. Divide that number by ten, or even a hundred. Now ask yourself, “What would it take to convince me to give someone that much of my money?” Uh-huh, I thought so. Listen: your proposal has to be well-nigh perfect to even have a chance of being discussed, let alone funded. Yes, proposal writing is the hardest part of the job, simply because there’s so much at stake for all parties concerned.  So get ready cause this is going to be slightly less fun than a goddam root canal.

2. Be Specific.  I don’t know about you, but before I give my money away, I want to be fully confident that the person I am giving it to has both a clue about what they’re doing and a plan for how to get there. Paragraphs explaining how Climate Change is Real or why Cancer is Bad are not helpful to me; if I am even considering giving you tens of thousands of dollars to study something then I probably believe it’s important even more than you do. What I want are the specifics of how you are going to get the question answered. I want to evaluate the details of your approach. You need to convince me that you’ve thought hard about it, considered your options, and visualized what success looks like from start to finish.

Let’s start with the Title. Here’s a sucky Title for a proposal:

“Characterization of Rat Vomit”

As a reviewer, I see this and think, Okay how about ‘rat vomit is gross?’ There, I just characterized it. Whoop-de-doo.

Here’s a better Title:

“Identification of Rare Amino Acids within Rat Vomit using Barfatron Energy Spectra”

As a reviewer, I see this and think, Golly, I didn’t know the Barfatron could do amino acids. Let’s see what the kids are up to in this one.

Note that the better Title states not only what you want to figure out, but how you propose to do it. Now I’m going to read your proposal in order to find out how many rats, how much puke, which amino acids and why those, how you correct for bile and saliva contamination, etc., etc. Ironically, we both know damn well that you won’t end up following this exact course of action, best-laid-plans and all, but proving to me that you can form a realistic plan is absolutely key.

3. Be Quantitative.  After you write anything, go back and replace all qualitative statements with quantitative ones. General Rule for All Scientific Writing: If it is worth taking up the space to say it, then it is worth saying precisely. Knowing and showing the numbers is basically the only thing that separates a Scientist from a Guy Selling Vitamins At The Mall. Both callings have their place, I suppose, but government agencies are better oriented towards funding the former.

Example time! Here’s a sucky Methods sentence:

“We will collect vomit from each rat in sufficient volume for analysis.”

Here’s a better version:

“Once a week during Year 2, a cohort of one hundred post-menopausal female rats will be monitored for pallor changes upon the administration of 150 mL of Woolworth’s ipecac solution. All esophageal expulsions produced during the twenty-four hours following the initialization of regurgitation will be collected within sterile 1L Lufthansa sick bags fastened to subjects’ ears using STAPLES’ staplers and staples.”

4. Tell Me Why Oh Why.  While your proposal’s Introduction has to be mighty short, it must argue in stringent terms that academia as we know it will come to a grinding halt unless someone does the work you propose. Tell about how you examined the shit out of the literature only to become aware of a gaping hole in the current state of knowledge even as it dawned on you that you – and really only you — are perfectly set up to rectify this serious collective intellectual oversight.

Get it? Here’s a sucky Introduction sentence:

“Numerous studies have characterized the inorganic acids in rat vomit [refs. 1-8], but to our knowledge, no work has been performed to identify rare amino acids.”

Here’s a better version:

“The chemistry of rat vomit remains the gold standard for diagnosis of tummy health, a measure of wellness that can be usefully extrapolated to every organism that has ever lived [ref. 1]. My survey of the literature revealed that amino acid concentrations seldom exceeded 99.9 kg/ml in both pre- and post-menopausal rat vomit [refs. 2-9]. These studies, though current, did not incorporate the contribution of rare amino acids, as their detection has only been made possible by recent advances in Barfatron technology. My previous work has demonstrated exhaustively within other contexts how rare amino acids actually control the whole damn world [refs. 10-12]. Here I propose to definitively quantify the contribution of rare amino acids to rat vomit across menopausal status, thus making possible a new definition of rat nausea, integrated across an energy spectrum ranging from gamma to radio waves.”

5. Consider The Funder’s Objectives.  Newsflash: Funding agencies don’t give away money just to experience the Rockwellian charm of playing Santa Klaus. The agencies, as well as those in their service, are actually trying to accomplish something. To get funding, you not only have to convince reviewers that you’re competent, you must also convince the agencies that you represent the wisest possible investment towards meeting their objectives. The only way to get a clear idea of what the program’s objectives are is to call or visit the Program Manager and ask her (or him, I guess) directly. She’ll start out by saying, “It’s simple: We want to fund the best science,” but keep her talking and you’ll eventually hear things like, “Wow, I’ve heard a lot of buzz over rare amino acids, tell me more,” or perhaps, “Yeah, but so much of the Barfatron work that we funded in the 1990s proved to be a dead-end.” These conversations are invaluable when you are deciding which grants to apply for. Writing a fundable proposal is a huge task, you can’t just shot-gun towards every solicitation you see, it just ain’t gonna work. You need to get feedback about your idea’s fit before you start, and that’s where talking to the Program Manager comes in.

6. Write it Well.  Okay, now you have to make all that super specific arcane shit interesting to read. The better written it is, the more of the proposal the reviewer will actually read. More reading equals more chance at gaining an informed review and useful suggestions. Beware of joining multiple PI grants where each “writes her/his own section” and then someone stacks it into a 15-page science Jenga: such piles usually collapse into rejectionland before they even hit the panel. It’s simply inescapable that near to the deadline, one of the PIs has to take the reigns for at least three days and read the whole thing out loud a few times to make sure that it flows well and makes sense. And they must also format it beautifully, with at least one dazzling figure or colorful illustration per page – which looks a lot better than any whole page of monolithic black text. Sound like too much work? Then let’s do some more math! Take the grand total dollar figure and divide it by 15 pages, and guess what, that’s how much money each page of your writing thinks it deserves. Ask your journalist friends how much they get paid per page. Upshot: proposal writing has to be the best writing of your career.

7. Gird Your Loins.  Steel yourself for a long haul, because most grants will have to go around at least two times. It’s rather like the revision process with a manuscript in that it’s quite rare when something gets accepted without any revisions. Odds are that your reviewers are going to have expertise very close to your own and the funding agency is counting on them to help you tweak your proposal into a plan with the maximum likelihood to succeed. As with papers, the objective is not to get past the reviewers, it is to learn something from them. The best way to show that you’ve done this is to include an explicit boxed paragraph before the Introduction stating how any revised proposal has been changed due to input gained during the previous cycle. Mayhaps thusly:

“Within the previous version of this proposal, Panelist #1 objected strongly to our request for one large yacht within which to sail rats back and forth between Oxnard and Catalina Island as a method for triggering seasickness prior to actual vomit collection. In this version, we have reduced costs drastically by substituting four semesters of support for one RA who will spend 10 hrs/wk sharply kicking each rat in the solar plexus until a glassy-eyed retching posture is achieved, in keeping with the suggestion of Panelist #2 that we ‘hit the little f*ckers until they blow chunks’.”

8. Don’t Lose Hope.  Buck up because it’s probably going to be okay. If you can get just one decent-sized grant before you go up for tenure, that may be enough; it sure will be if I’m reviewing your file. If you can get into the habit of writing two good grant proposals each year, you’ll improve rapidly with each cycle and likely get there in time. I’ll say it again: always talk to the Program Manager before writing, tell her your idea and pour your heart out. And remember that even though you’re an expert, you still have an awful lot to learn.

Guess what I’m psychic! Lots of people are going to say that the above advice is sort of good but also sort of wrong and that I should have instead specified x, y and z. The people who say that should go write their own blog posts and specify x, y and z. Then they should tweet me so that I can read & RT them.

And just in case someone is still reading, I feel moved to gripe about how I really, really hate the words “Characterization” and “Implications” to the point that I wish that they had never been invented by the Greeks or Lats or whatever, both being so vague as to be utterly useless. I don’t care how you ‘characterize’ something, I want to know what you measured. I don’t care what you think the ‘implications’ are, I want to know what you claim this means. For cripes sake, quit dancing around and say something, so I can either agree or disagree with you and we can both move on with our lives.

Fortunately for the world at large, I have lots more unsolicited advice to give out, such as what you should do after you get tenure, what to say about climate change, whether or not to have a baby and how to make cheese.  You also can’t comment on this page and here’s why.

What I Say When My Colleagues Ask Me If They Should Be On Twitter

Quite frequently nowadays, other professors ask me if they should be on Twitter.  “This is kind of sad,” I think to myself, “How did we get to the point where I’m giving computer advice?”  I’ve decided to generously make my opinions available.  Here they are right in front of your very eyeballs. 

What I Say When My Colleagues Ask Me If They Should Be On Twitter

Twitter is like a river.  It’s a river of information flowing by.  Some of the information is important.  Some of it isn’t.  Twitter can be a clear and pure mountain stream and it can also be a rank and fetid conduit of human sewage.  It can be all of these things at the same time.  Every day I go down to the river and toss a few rocks in.  They mostly disappear under the surface without ceremony.  Once in a great while I make a small splash.  Every day I get a little wet down at the river, which can be kind of refreshing.

“Join the Conversation!” commands Twitter, and we obligingly comply.  “Where does all this Conversation go?” you might ask me.  Well, it flows down the Mighty River of Sh*t into the Great Ocean of Oblivion.  The whole process takes about eight seconds (at most).  Supposedly you can go dredge the ocean years later and relocate any drop of water you care to, no matter how random it was.  This means that Victoria Beckham might one day contact me and ask to see my Baby Spice Dance, which I never had the chance to make public before I got on Twitter.  It also means that I may someday be taken to task for the disparaging generalizations I’ve made about #heterotrophs, who can be disappointingly sore losers in a metabolism-based #smackdown.  Like a lot of other things in life, Twitter can be as much or as little as you want it to be.  No, Twitter probably won’t help you organize your desk drawers or lower your cholesterol but it is particularly good for a few things.

Twitter is useful for five things:

1.  Meeting people.  You will inevitably meet people on Twitter because there’s always somebody down at the river — day or night, rain or snow, Christmas Eve or Thermonuclear Doomsday.  People meet their soulmates on Twitter.  They meet their deranged stalkers as well, and every imaginable scenario in between.  Twitter is great for combatting isolation.  Here in Hawaii we spend long hours in the lab while the mainland is sleeping or shoveling snow or being on CSPAN or whatever the hell it is you guys do over there.  Twitter allows us to share the small victories of lab-life with the handful of other people in the world who “get” what it’s like to piss yourself with delight over the growth of a new leaf.  This is invaluable to us and has improved our sorry lot immeasurably just within the last year.

2.  Saying something.  If Twitter is like a river, it’s also like graduate school in that you shouldn’t just get in and float around aimlessly for a few years.  What do you want to say?  What do you need to say?  Whatever it is, go say it, even if it is controversial.  Especially if it is controversial.  And you will inevitably step on someone’s toes, it’s unavoidable.  Credibility is an interesting thing both IRL and on Twitter.  A lot of Twitter-cred is simply a function of how much time you’re willing to spend on the riverbank.  You probably won’t have any luck arguing with someone who lives 24/7 at the river’s edge.  So set your own limits according to what else you’ve got going.  Remember that you can come and go from the river as you please, Good Glory it don’t need you to keep it flowing.  And do remember that tweeting about an issue is not the same as doing something about it.

3.  Expressing rage.  Some users really go in big for this option.  If you need evidence that Homo sapiens is a rageful species, Twitter is a convenient and supremely fecund source.  Some of the anger is straightforward to understand, since injustice inevitably inspires legitimate rage.  I suppose all rage is a legitimate response to something, just only rarely toward whomever it’s being tweeted.  Combine this with the fact that on Twitter one is not excessively accountable for one’s rage and you get The Perfect Interpersonal Storm.  Listen, you can scream insults in ALL CAPS for hours on Twitter, and you will not be held accountable in the same way that your neighbors will hold you accountable if you go out your front door and scream profanity at the top of your lungs all night long.  This has value because IRL accountability is often based on norms founded upon unjust power structures that are rendered deliciously ineffective by the internet.  Yes indeed, this has value, but it also carries a cost – and this cost is exacted not only from the person being screamed at, but also from the screamer’s overall effectiveness.  Incongruously enough, anger ultimately rings rather impotently through the halls of Twitter, while unexpected kindness can echo long.

4.  Setting an example.  One thing that makes Twitter so interesting is that there are almost no rules.  No one can control what hashtag you post to or what words you type, although I’ve seen people expend an impressive amount of energy trying to do just that.  I strongly recommend that you choose your own rules before setting sail down the River Twitter.  First take the time to explore your values.  What kind of person do you believe you are?  What kind of person do you want to be?  Decide the circumstances under which you would block a user who is attempting to communicate with you.  It may not seem likely at the start, but these will be criteria to which you’ll eventually appeal.  It’s constructive to consult the concept of reciprocity, and the long history of the internet can be useful here.  You can learn a lot about a user by examining a few days of recent feed.  Has the person demanding that you listen to them ever demonstrated a willingness to listen to anyone?  Has the person demanding that you change ever evidenced a change in themselves?  Deliniate your personal threshhold for reciprocity, set your limits, and then act accordingly.  Oh, and by the way, if you do this right then your students are watching you, as are a bunch of young people you don’t even know.  What example will you set for them in terms of how to handle internet conflict?  What will you teach them about how scientists should treat each other?

5.  Experimenting with your identity.  You can claim any identity you want on Twitter.  Start from the assumption, however, that most people want to know the real you.  Unless you make it relentlessly explicit that you are a parody account, people will assume that whatever you tweet is basically your real opinion.  What do you really think?  What do you really care about?  It is an interesting experience to tweet your opinions outloud.  You’ll also hear interesting opinions, sometimes held by unlikely identities.  There’s this rabbit that runs a lab and recently an urchin got on Twitter and by gosh I lay awake at night wondering what they’ll say next.  Many smart journalists have twitter feeds where they pull what is actually interesting out of the vast septic intertank as some kind of penance for something, I imagine.  Always remember that every tweet you read is out-of-context because there is no context that fits into 123.7 characters or whatever the hell the number is.  A healthy first reaction to every and any tweet is “Golly, I wonder what the hell the context for that could possibly be!”

So there’s five reasons for ya.  Since when have you had five good reasons to do anything?  Were there five good reasons to go to this week’s Faculty Meeting?  Exactly.  So go ahead and set up a Twitter account!  Hell, set up two or three or six.  Paint your nails and tweet a picture, you never know what might happen.  Come on down to the river and make your choice – because in the end, every time you tweet you are making a choice — whether you realize it or not.  Like every other arena of your life, you are choosing to what and whom you will give your time and emotional energy.   On Twitter, you will never be able to choose what people say to you.  But you are the one who chooses what you say back.

Do you like being told what to do by people who think they know everything?  If so you’re in the right place!  Here’s my advice on how to Get A Faculty Job, How to Save Time Your Faculty Job once you get it, and what to do After You Get Tenure.

How I Fell In Love with Becky Sharp

I always wanted to be a writer, but I became a scientist instead because it is a lot easier.  Here’s the story of exactly how I made that choice.  I was a sophomore in college at the University of Minnesota and it was, well, the Eighties.  I told this story once when I was on a panel meant to explain to undergrads how their professors had chosen their majors.  I was never invited back.

While growing up in America you are taught that everything worth reading was written in England a long time ago.  I developed the expectation that after I’d spent four years in college exploring just how incredibly goddam true that was, I could then be a Writer, having absorbed all that Great Writing and understanding the Symbolism and Context, et cetera.  So I became what used to be called an “English Major” using this thing called a “scholarship” that used to exist.  I gave it a try — I really did — but it still didn’t work out the way I expected it to.  Here’s what happened.

The lectures for my English classes were downright bizarre.  It became clear to me early on that the students who showed up having even scanned the assigned texts comprised a pale minority, and that we weren’t meant to criticize or question what everyone had decided fifty years ago was a Great Work.  This made for predictable and tedious discussion sections perversely enforced on behalf of some cosmic curricular calendar.

We read Bram Stoker’s Dracula which contains a “Memorandum Left by Lucy Westenra” describing how a wolf jumped on Lucy and her mother causing the latter to die instantly of fright, while the former hung on bravely for a number of pages, but ultimately also proved mortally wounded by the aforementioned canine barbarity.  The scene affected me deeply in that I thought it utterly asinine, and during class I said so and furthermore postulated that Stoker had either never met a big dog or a full-grown woman, nor possibly both.  The professor countered with a short speech describing the widespread incidence of tuberculosis throughout the eighteen-hundreds.  I pushed my luck by describing how the bacteria guilty of causing TB, for all their sins, couldn’t rationally be accused of preferring female lungs over male ones, and that in Stoker’s follow-up short story Dracula’s Guest a wolf actually gets into the bed of an unnamed Englishman while he is sleeping and then French kisses him for a while, after which the Englishman goes on with his life not more worse for wear.  My soliloquy left me energized but my professor appeared depleted and my classmates only looked bored.

“Women in those days couldn’t breathe properly,” she explained patiently, and I marveled that she was serious.  “They were constricted by corsets,” she elaborated.

“Not all of them,” I contradicted, “The women in my family would have knocked that thing cold with a cast-iron skillet, drug it into the yard, poured lard on it and set it on fire to keep other wolves from getting ideas.”

“I think you are missing the point of the story,” she said in the tone that teachers employ when they’ve deemed it time for you to shut up, “This is an ancillary scene around a subordinate character.”

I slumped down in my chair and seethed for a moment, then looked around me and began to appreciate the comedy of the situation.  Maybe Victorian literature should just be left alone, I reasoned: if the only student who had actually read the book had also missed its point then even Bram Stoker and Henry James put together probably couldn’t save my woeful generation.  I waxed philosophical and reflected upon how the words “ancillary” and “subordinate” effectively summed up ninety-nine-point-nine-nine percent of the female characters depicted on paper during the nineteenth century.  I had enrolled in a class named “Great Novels of the Victorian Era” figuring that I’d encounter at least one book that I’d want to read twice.  I learned that there must be something wrong with me because I dutifully read and re-read the same passages that had charmed and inspired generations of intellectuals and was plagued by what I saw as their repeated demonstrations of insufferable insipidity.

Of all the stupid characters, the female ones were the stupidest, and damned if it wasn’t female authors that had cooked up the worst ones.  The four Little Women and their four hundred Little Problems didn’t much move me and I suspected it was because I didn’t really care which one ended up genetically replicating Laurie throughout her reproductive years, except that it seemed the only way for any of us to escape the tedious sermons that Reverend Marmee dispatched with chapteric frequency.  These characters can’t even die assertively, I thought when I finally got to page 456, smiled through my tears, and thanked God that Beth was dead at last.  All those acerbically witty Jane Austen characters never got around to discussing anything important because their life stories ended on the same day that they got engaged.  I even had to admit that the Dickens characters who had burrowed like chiggers into my heart were obviously too good to be anywhere near real, and I was aghast at his heroines who didn’t start out virtuous but mysteriously evolved into their better selves upon extended exposure to matrimonial brutality.  Why the hell hadn’t the mother and sisters of these characters already in-lawed the asshole husbands into a shallow grave by the time he administered his tenth beating?  Where were the granddaughters of the Viking women warriors who brought down war on your head for looking at them wrong, and could be killed only by an epic battle after which they marched straight into hell and told the entire afterlife to f*ck off?  Where were the granddaughters of the Greek heroines who revenged themselves even by murdering innocent children when wronged, giving terrible shape to the infinite injustice that they presumed attended any harm to themselves?  Had every single one of their descendants died of tuberculosis on Old Vicky’s coronation day?

Catherine Linton née Earnshaw was attractive because she had so effectively harnessed her God-given talents towards sadism, but I was disappointed to find that she never made it off the farm and instead spent her best years stomping around the bogs and caterwauling into the darkness.  Her sister-by-another-mother Jane Eyre used her formidable strength to stagger down a moral high road only to win the prized pile-of-cinders heart of a secretive and mutilated old buzzard, the moral of that story being Be Careful What You Wish For.  About the time that I pompously declared the English language fundamentally inadequate to the description of true womanhood, I noted that Charlotte Brontë had dedicated Jane Eyre to William Makepeace Thackeray and decided to read Vanity Fair in order to see what the hubbub was about.

I was immediately enraptured by Rebecca Sharp: without friends, connections or money she went more places and saw more things than all the other characters in the book combined, while forced to rely on her wits alone.  Becky didn’t have any love for the world that didn’t love her, though she could heartily pretend it if her survival required.  This was the role model that I’d been searching for, I decided, and she signed on as an indifferent and shadowy travelling companion for the years ahead.  I was further convinced of my evaluation when searching the voluminous canon purported to interpret Vanity Fair turned up no authoritative analysis of Becky’s multidimensional character.  The back cover of my filthy and frayed Penguin Classics copy described Becky as “free-wheeling,” and thus came closer than anything else I could find.  I decided that Becky was different because she was the only one of all these characters that was truly free: free from definition by others and so free to define herself, her marginality furnished an accidental means towards liberation.  Perhaps if you transplanted a Visigoth princess into Modern history, stuffed her into a corset and a complex social code, what you got was Becky Sharp.

Becky’s life wasn’t easy, and it didn’t end particularly well, although I suspected that she didn’t give a shit what the reader thought.  Plenty of literary analysts stared down their post-Industrial noses and judged her as “amoral”, but it rang hollow to fault her for rejecting a career as The Little Matchstick Girl in favor of hanging out in Bath and Brussels bedizened in silk shantung.  Becky’s abject deficiency as a mother was not lost on me: she couldn’t take care of her son and she hadn’t really tried, and if this failure at all pained her, the reader sure hadn’t heard anything about it.  You might scan chapter after chapter curious to see whom Amelia would end up with, but you didn’t worry about Becky.  She could take care of herself.

Having discovered far more value in a book that wasn’t assigned than in all the books that had been, I tapered off of the English courses and commandeered my own literary education.  I filled the daytime void with science courses that liked me back even more than I liked them.  There my curiosity and questions fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold (chemistry), some sixtyfold (biology), and some thirtyfold (physics).  I was astounded to find that diligent combat against my lack of preparation during high-school made me a precious “B-plus” sheep that when found and returned to the fold, they verily rejoiceth more of than of the ninety and nine which had easily earned an “A”.  Ironically, it was science that regarded my ability to write correctly to be nothing short of a divine harbinger of success.

I wasn’t ready and I wasn’t special.  I knew damn well that I wasn’t smart enough to be a scientist, and I was certainly not noble enough to deserve to be one.  I was merely audacious enough to want Science, and the more I learned, the more I wanted.  I decided that like Becky, I would take something that wasn’t meant for me, and I’d never apologize for my theft.  Like her, I’d just have to make it up as I went along.

I also love Marie Curie.  Or at least I think I do.  You can read more about that here.

Ten Things To Do After You Get Tenure

I heard you got Tenure – Congratulations!  Count me amongst the disappointingly small number of people in the world who get what a big deal this is.  Tenure is a complex concept that means many things, but it does not mean that people will stop telling you what to do.  Count me amongst the disconcertingly large number of people in the world who will continue telling you what to do.  Let’s begin directly!  Below are ten things that I want you to do.


Ten Things To Do After You Get Tenure

1. Be Careful … to tell only the small number of people that you are already certain will be happy for you.  Let others vine these grapes according to the whims of time and chance.  I know your first impulse is to race to Dr. Bozo’s office in order to taunt him, and it’s a laudable one.  “BOOM!” you rap to a victory twerk, “Dead-old-man-just-a-picture-on-the-wall  / I-still-be-getting-mad-pay-to-diss-you-in-the-hall!”  You’re recklessly risking your buzz in that Dr. Bozo may then respond with, “It was only because you’re a woman,” or the exhilaratingly direct, “I voted against it.”  Let him say these things to someone else while you are at home having a little party — a little party, not a big party.  Hey, I know Tenure feels like a victory over something or a reward for something.  IT’S NOT.  It will take you a little while to figure out what it is.  A while.  Like months.

2. Take A Walk.  Go to a hospital intensive care unit, go to a sewage treatment plant, go to your kid’s daycare – hell, go to the slaughterhouse where most of my friends from high school work.  Grab a cup of coffee and look around for a while.  You will notice lots of women and men working hard to make difficult things happen.  Now stop and wonder if any of these people will ever be eligible for Tenure at their jobs, regardless of how hard they work and how effective they are.  Then wonder the same thing about public defenders, sex workers and Starbucks baristas.  Realize that the answer is a resounding “no”.

3. Ask Yourself … why the concept of Tenure is reserved for academics.  Is it because what you do is more important than what these other people do?  Newsflash: it’s not.  Is it because you are a super smart special genius who deserves more out of life than the average unwashed global villager?  Glory be — if you believe that then you’re probably already beyond help.  Listen up: Tenure is actually some kind of a tool that might be particularly useful in your line of work.  It is up to you to decide if you will shove this rare and transformative tool into a drawer and let it rust, or if you will pick it up and use it.  It is your choice.

4. Get A Piece of Paper And A Pen … and write down a few of the things that you declined to do because you were Untenured.  Pick the things that you really feel guilty for turning down.  It can include all those STEM education RFPs to which you didn’t respond, or the Rape Crisis Center that needed a faculty liaison.  What about the OA journal that wanted new Editors, or the journalist that you didn’t have time for?  The fact that you actually got Tenure means that there will be at least five items on your list, but limit yourself to the ten most compelling examples.  And don’t get all freaked out on me dammit — you’re not necessarily going to sign up and do these very things, but listing them is a critical part of the exercise.

5. Now Write Down … the choice zingers that you declined to say because you were Untenured.  Pick your favorites.  It can be things like,  “Modeling plant evapotranspiration as a passive function of atmospheric temperature is feebleminded bullshit you dumbass,” or, “Why the f*ck are we still teaching optical mineralogy when our graduates don’t know the difference between a plant and an animal?”  Or perhaps, “F*ckyou you evil f*ckwad registrar, my best undergrad is dropping out because he can’t pay the exorbitant tuition,” or even, “We both know damn well that dickhead is also sliming on the students and the staff.”  Again, list no less than five and no more than ten.  We don’t want go down the resentment rabbit-hole here; whenever you start to feel put-upon, go back and do step #2.

6. Think Hard About #5.  What was really behind those things you didn’t say?  What was your truest motivation for wanting to say those things?  What part of those petty sniping sarcastic comments was your brave heroic best self trying to come through?  What was the real risk that you chose not to take when you bit down on your tongue?  Now rewrite those 5-10 things  within this new and better context.

7. Compare … the items in list #4 and list #6.  Is there any overlap?  If there is, then YOU’RE GOLDEN.  Somewhere within that overlap lies the key to your unique potential as an agent of real change.  Right there is the intersection between what you believe and the access that your Tenured position provides.  Now take a deep breath because what you just figured out is important: You just figured out Where To Start.

8. Make A Plan.  Here comes the hard part: It’s going to take you some time to map out a plan for how to activate this newly-found potential.  You’ll need to disengage from most of what you’ve been doing and decide what parts of the status quo to dump unceremoniously in favor of your new crusade.  Map out a great strategy, and then map out several fallback plans for when your awesome can’t-fail strategy doesn’t pan out.  Know that you are basically starting your career over, with a whole different set of performance standards set internally instead of externally.  A Sabbatical is the perfect time to do all this – in fact, this is what a Sabbatical is meant to facilitate, IMHO.  Removed from the habits and rituals of your accustomed institution, can you envision a new set of principles, the new resultant set of tasks and new inbox?  Can you come back from your Sabbatical meaningfully changed, ready to do your work differently and with more conviction?

9. Commit … to your new Post-Tenure identity.  Tell the people you love and who love you that you’ve decided to transform the nature of your job, and explain to them about the greater good for which you are now working.  Ask them if they’re OK with it, because if you do this right, your world – and perhaps theirs – is about to be rocked.  You are going to disappoint some people by ceasing to do what they have come to expect you will do.  It will be scary, too.  You’ve decided to stop relying upon what has finally been conceded as expertise in order to launch shakier skills that you haven’t tested yet.  You will inevitably upset some people.  You’ll lose some friends and gain others, and you’ll come to know yourself much better along the way.  You are opting for the discomfort of growth over the entitled ease of decay.  Many days, you’ll find comfort in one thing only: You are not wasting the most valuable tool you’ve ever been given.

10. Change The World … into what you wished it was when you were coming up, as an undergrad, as a grad student, as a new professor.  Go out and give someone what you wish you had gotten.  All these things you’ve been bitching so bitterly about for years: Public apathy over Climate Change, lack of minorities in STEM, how damn dumb the students are – it is up to you to make the data that shows these things are getting better.  So gird your loins, Take Up The Tenured Man’s Burden and carry with you all the good luck that I can possibly conjure.  Go change our world a lot or a little.  Or a lot.  Because you are now finally doing something that only Tenured You can do.

Want to leave a comment? LOL you can’t, and here’s why.  But you can tweet my stupid *ss and I’ll tweetcha back.

My Blog’s Comment Policy

Over the course of two short months my blog’s comment policy has gone from “Let’s Exchange Ideas And Make The World A Better Place!” to “Shetcherhole If I Cared What Other People Had To Say I’d Be Reading Blogs Not Writing One.”  Here’s two versions of the story that explains how I got to where I am.

My Blog’s Comment Policy

Here’s the Short Version of how I turned off comments for my blog:


Here’s the Long Version:

At the beginning I would blog a-plenty then react with great interest as the comments came in.  After these first posts, the ratio of readers:commenters was around 10 and the comments said things like “Thank God someone finally said this!” and “I am losing continence while reading!” and “I just made hubby pull the car over so he could read your exquisite writing for himself!”  I carefully responded to each comment with a consummately demure reply, gently deflecting the deluge of praise while simultaneously revealing the depth of my gratitude.  “These people are extremely insightful,” I thought to myself, silently thanking the nameless programmer at WordPress who had made it all possible, “What a useful feature that provides valuable feedback!  Blogging should always be a two-way street.”

Once my readers:commenters ratio hit about 100, I started to receive comments that were less useful to me as a writer.  I wrote about breast-feeding and one reader clutched her pearls and shrieked “In a civilized society we do not wave our boobs around” (that’s a real quote, folks) and some dickhead wrote that “You may be able to blog, but you sure can’t write … You sound like a talentless teenager with an attitude problem.” (another real quote).  I thought about these comments carefully.  “These people should shut the f*ck up,” I thought to myself, silently cursing the nameless programmer at WordPress who had made it all possible, “This will distract my readers from the true value of the post.  A two-way street often causes needless traffic compared to an efficient high-speed train that no one dares to criticize.”  I politely explained to these commenters how very wrong they were and then didn’t hear back, not even to thank me for all the enlightenment I had provided completely gratis.

I posted some more and saw my readers:commenters ratio edging towards 1,000.  I looked at the previous numbers and spotted a trend.  “I don’t like where this is heading,” I observed to myself.  This proved to be an important premonition, but I didn’t recognize it at the time.  A little while later I got a comment that basically told me that if I actually had any brains at all I would have an extra large size of Impostor Syndrome because I was obviously shit.  I was truly concerned about this commenter’s computer, since the asshole clearly wasn’t using it correctly to look up my f*cking c.v.  I simply responded to his post by stating that I found his comment to be positively stupefying and sat around stupefied for about a day.

Then that very same dickhead killed my comment policy and ruined it for everyone, so get mad at him and not at me.  You know what he did?  He posted a bunch of hateful caveman shit about The Jews and The Women and The Blacks and linked his “argument” to some batshit nutter websites that show actual f*cking math (badly) employed to back up the argument that The Thes above are not as intelligent as White Men, and a lot of other stuff that’s even more offensive than that.  “This guy has some real f*cking problems,” I thought to myself, silently wishing that the nameless programmer at WordPress hadn’t come to work on the day that he coded the comment feature, “My blog is my living room and I feel like someone just broke into my house and took a dump on the piano keyboard.”

So comments are now closed and won’t reopen until Hell freezes over, which would be a real possibility if I still lived in Minnesota but I don’t anymore.  If you want to contact me and tell me how shitty I am you can tweet me at @HopeJahren but I’ll tell you right now that you’re going to the back of a mighty long line, mister.  I reply to tweets pretty reliably, so take heart in the idea that you’ll still be able to hurt my feelings if you really feel the need.  You can even tweet me a few times on the same subject, but I really have to advise that if you have a lot more than ~500 characters to say about something you’d be much better off writing your own blog post.  Send me the link and I will read it carefully, I sincerely promise.  And maybe you shouldn’t take any post categorized as a “Gut Buster” super seriously, although maybe you should. Depending.

Do you have a comment? Leave a reply! Oops haha LOL.

Five Things I Say To Career Women Who Tell Me They Might Want To Have A Baby

Recently there’s been a spate of internet discussion offering justifications for or against women becoming mothers as overworked graduate students versus as overworked post-docs versus as overworked pre-tenure professors versus as overworked decrepit old crones like the way I did it.  When I see this type of thing I am greatly affected.   I generally throw down my beer bottle and holler “Glory Halleluiah!  If it ain’t the ancient trope of Social Control Over Female Fertility all gussied up Academy-style!  What would us mangy old feminists do with ourselves if we didn’t have to get up off the couch every thirty minutes and lop another head off of that wretched Hydra?”  Yes, it is true that when women get each other alone, we sometimes talk about where babies come from.  Here’s five things that I say when the issue comes up.  Just like with the rest of this blog, just because I say it doesn’t mean I’m right.  Just like with the rest of my life, just because I might not be right isn’t going to keep me from saying it.

Five Things I Say To Career Women Who Tell Me They Might Want To Have A Baby

1. Having a kid is hard but it’s not any harder than a lot of the other stuff you are already doing.  In fact, it may be easier than some of the stuff you do every damn day.  Once your kid is born, you feed and water them and they keep doubling in size — a lot of that shit just goes on autopilot.  Pregnancy is the bad part, and I won’t lie to you.  The gestation my offspring sucked so hard that I don’t even have words to describe it.  But even so, there are women who enjoy being pregnant and go around all bursting with the cosmic power of fertility and whatnot, and I say more power to them.  Personally, I just laid around eating doughnuts and rejecting every single paper and proposal that came my way.  It just seemed fitting that everyone should be as miserable as I was.

2. Don’t fall for all that crap about how universally hard it is to get pregnant past 30 and get all freaked out that you’re running out of time.  Jeezus, look around you.  If it were all that super impossible to get knocked up there wouldn’t be so many goddam people in the world.  Never believe anyone who is trying to scare you into choosing one thing or another when it comes to your fertility.  As with everything else that’s important, only listen to people that you trust and respect, and even then make sure you decide for yourself.  You are the only person who can know what’s best for your life.

3. Don’t worry too much about whether you have the patience, maternal instincts, whatever, to be a “good mom” to your offspring.  Seriously, if you only remember one thing I say here, let it be this: You get special chemicals in your head that help you put up with their crap.  No one was more surprised to discover this stuff than me, and it’s just unreal.  I genuinely believe that every single stupid little thing my kid does makes for the world’s most interesting and fascinating watching.  I am also convinced that he is an angel beyond reproach.  Basically, my son could set fire to the dog and I would just take pictures and post them on Facebook as yet more charming proof of his irresistible precocity.  You will like the kid just fine, trust me.

4. Quality care is key.  I read (or I made up) an interview with Barbara Kingslover who writes genius books and also has like eighteen kids where someone asked her how she “does it all.”  She answered simply, “I write when my children are in someone else’s care.”  The bottom line is that some of the good work that you will do will need to be done while your kid is off being someone else’s problem.  The good news is that there are lots of women (and men) who can provide quality care: friends, relations and paid care-givers.  Some of these women in particular are absolute wizards when it comes to babies; they taught me amazing things like which end to put the diaper on.  The bad news is that quality care is f*cking expensive and if I had a solution for that one my retirement account would probably have more than eight dollars in it right now.  The other good news is that having a kid really does make you more efficient at work, and here’s why.  You can finally walk right past what used to be time-consuming hallway interactions remarking politely, “Listen Old Man, I’m not forking out $2k per month so I can come in here and listen to you gibber hatefully about how the ‘A-rabs’ have taken over Charles Street.”  Here’s another important thing: Babies aren’t really all that heavy at first and so you can take them with you almost everywhere you go.  Sure people might give you the stink eye sometimes, but they will usually stop short of calling security and having you escorted out.  I’ve learned that you can take a sleep-deprived toddler who has consumed nothing but Halloween candy for thirteen days into a faculty meeting and although he is hardly welcome, he will not prove himself to be the worst-behaved person in the room.  Oh by the way, in case it is news to someone, they eat from your boob and so do this whenever you want and wherever you want and if someone gives you a hard time tell them that I said “F*CK OFF.”

5. Take your folic acid.  It can’t hurt and you never really know what you’ll decide to do with your life, anyway.  Or maybe you do.  Maybe you’ll decide to have a kid and fall in love so hard and so irrevocably that you won’t even recognize yourself afterwards like I did.  In the end, my advice here is the same advice that I give whenever a woman tells me that she thinks she might want something — anything.  I automatically say to her, Go get it.  Go try.  Go get what you want.  And maybe you’ll even want what you get, like I did.  Because you can do this.  You can do this, too.