Slacking

I keep noticing that I’m less motivated, productive, and just feeling less on top of things than I did last term. I worry that I’m slipping into old habits or I’ve lost something key and can’t get it back. What if the new environment and the excitement of a new direction in my life is what allowed me to do well, and that productivity was not a skill I developed or evidence of personal growth, but a fluke of circumstance?

Well, last night (when I was aimlessly wandering the Internet at 3 am, because that’s healthy) I stumbled across an interesting analogy.

One of the ways I’ve been slacking is that I’ve gained back about 10 pounds of the weight I lost a year ago. (This has happened slowly over the time since I moved and started grad school, but I only bought a scale recently ; )

So I am back browsing some of the supportive weightloss forums I used to be on, and last night I stumbled on this post from a user who had also gained back some weight she had lost. Reading the comments helped me realize a few things:

  1. What happened yesterday/last month/over the last year has already happened, and feeling bad about it or denying it won’t change anything.
  2. Even if my slacking off had been an awful evil moral failing, the best thing to do would not be to feel bad about it. It would be to do something different today.
  3. The narrative of “I’ve been doing poorly,” or “I am slacking off,” or (possibly worse) “I am a procrastinator” is not helping. We have a bias toward wanting to be right about the world– if we believe we are slacking, it makes sense that we’d continue to do so. Why aim that tendency against your goals?
  4. Being vulnerable with other people about your experience, even if it’s your perceived failure at something they are all working toward and succeeding at, opens you up for their support and encouragement, and may even make other people who aren’t doing as well as they’d like feel less alone.

So I have to stop telling myself stories about being a slacker or about losing my momentum, and start thinking about what I can change. I can open up to people I can trust (or… the whole Internet?) about feeling like I’m not as productive as I’d like.

And, like my supportive partner reminded me, I can build a rat park for myself so I don’t use endless Internet binges to feel better. I’ll write a future post about the idea of rat-parking and my plans, but we talked through some basics on our weekly chat date this week. One of my favorite ideas was to start writing journal entries in draft blog entries. I love journaling, but it has seemed like it might detract from “real work.” I want to write a blog, but it’s intimidating to sit down and write a full, Internet-ready post in one sitting. Well, this way, I can journal, and if I like it, I can post it. If I don’t, I can save it to read or even polish for posting later. And either way, I get the writing practice and the cathartic experience of processing my thoughts.

So, it’s in the spirit of all of these things that I offer this journal-entry-which-is-now-a-blog-post, and this revamped description of reality:

Graduate school is stressful, and I don’t always eat, work, clean, or even relax the way I want to, but if pay attention to my behavior and feelings, be compassionate with myself, and make adjustments based on that understanding and compassion (instead of shame and guilt) I can look forward to the feeling of accomplishment, confidence in myself, and guilt-free relaxing that comes when I get shit done.

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Baby’s First Academic Conference

Hi!

So I’ve been gone– hopefully this doesn’t happen too much while I’m in grad school, but it seems somewhat inevitable, so I won’t start apologizing until there are readers here to complain 😉 Feel free to pipe up in the comments and redeem one groveling at no cost.

I’ve done a lot while I’ve been gone, but I thought I’d start with the most interesting event, the experience most relevant to new grad students, and the thing that went most differently than I expected: My First Conference.

Near the end of February and the beginning of March, I went to an ACM-SigCHI conference called Computer Supported Cooperative Work. Actually, no one calls it that: they call it CSCW and so will I. :)

Here’s what I knew going in: it’s a medium-sized conference (benchmarked using CHI and iConference, if that means anything to you), my advisor does a lot of work there, and I have a poster to present. But I’m surely not the first self-aware over-thinker to pass through the metaphorical halls of academia, and I was pretty worried about the whole thing.

Here’s were the challenges I identified:

  • the conference hotel was expensive. My travel award had a limit, and $300 a night gobbled that up pretty quickly, not to mention the cross-country flight and registration
  • I have to schedule travel and just hope that I don’t miss something important (SPOILER ALERT: I did.)
  • I have never designed, printed, or presented a poster before
  • Communities like this tend to have norms, history, status hierarchies, and all manner of other unseen mechanics that I would be completely unaware of. (what if I make an ass of myself?)

So here’s what I did.

First, the travel arrangements. I went on to airbnb and found that, even at half the price of the conference hotel, I’d still go over my travel award at the market rate there. This particular conference would have been worth it for me to spend a little money on, but I live on a graduate student stipend, so it was worth some extra hunting to see if I could get within my conference award.

I tweaked my search parameters a few times and found eventually found a residential hotel for half the market rate with a 7 day minimum stay. Even without the cheaper airfare for flying in and out on slow days, it was cheaper to stay longer! The guy had no reviews and he ignored my request the first time, but I was determined, so I sent a second request and I called him on the actual phone (!). (If you do this, I recommend that you make sure that the booking is through Airbnb. They have lots of protections for you if the host turns out to be sketchy, and if you book directly, you lose out on those.)

On missing things and gaining things. The conference itself was on the same days as my classes would have been, so no matter how I booked it, I’d miss one meeting of each class. But the rest of my week is generally free, so I had several days on each side to play with.  I picked the cheapest flight days, triple-checked my calendar, and booked!

So suddenly, I have a little mini-vacation on my calendar! 3 of those days are conference, and the rest are prep for conference and explore the city days! Certainly, not everyone will have the luxury of doing this, but perhaps this is the advantage that grad students (despite their limited funds) have over some faculty in attending conferences.

I took advantage of it and invited my LDR partner to join me there. He’s a 45 minute flight from the conference, and the trip fell just a couple days after our 2 year anniversary. Not exactly a luxury vacation, but we had an absolute blast. I don’t have time to go over all the fun stuff we did, but I’ll give you three of my favorite things I’ll be doing in future conference cities.

  • the work time: I’m putting this first because it sounds boring, but it really unlocked the fun of the whole trip for me. Since I was missing class and had all the same work obligations I do at home, from the first day, I had a lot of work on my mind. My partner also has autonomy over his time and work, so I think he had an easier time committing to the trip because it wouldn’t be a total loss in terms of productivity. So he suggested that we decide early on how many hours worth of work we wanted to do each (non-conference) day, and plan to do it so we could enjoy the rest of the time exploring. We decided on about half of our daily, non-vacation goal amount, and made sure we squeezed the most work out of it that we could. To be honest, I got a lot done because of that constraint, and it freed my mind to enjoy the city.
  • the backup charcuterie: on our first day, we went to Trader Joe’s and picked up a few kinds of cheese, a truffle pate, a baguette, and some beer and wine (I missed you California booze and booze regulations!) We had a mini fridge, so we were able to keep deliciousness in stock throughout our time there! It was great for relaxing and luxurious meals in or a quick snack. We couldn’t find (or travel with) a knife and didn’t want to buy 100 disposable plates or cups, so we used scissors to cut up our food, disassembled paper bags as a cheese board, and plastic coffee mugs for all drinks. No regrets– it was amazing, will do again.
  • the mysterious ferry adventure: You can accomplish this on any form of public transit, but we chose the ferry because we enjoy boats more than buses, BART is loud, and San Francisco has a lot of destinations on its ferry system.
    1.  find the transit vehicle of your choice
    2. Purchase a ticket to the next destination on the schedule
    3. Board the transit vehicle, and disembark when you arrive!
    4. Now, go explore the place you landed.

    We ended up in someplace in Marin County, found a nice walking trail, explored a community of marsh homes, and had dinner and beer at a local brewery! We like to read together, so we brought our books for the journey, and it was a real highlight of the trip. I’ll be doing something similar in future cities (time permitting :)

As the spoiler alert mentioned, though, I did miss something. After my travel arrangements had been booked, I got an email about a department event I was expected to participate in the day after the conference was over. I tried to rearrange my travel, but I wouldn’t have been able to do so without canceling the one affordable airbnb option. It was a bummer, but we worked out a way for me to contribute without attending. The bottom line, and the reason I mentioned it at all, was that I am really grateful for understanding faculty and the opportunity to go to the conference with their support and flexibility. And for all of us very-early-career academics, conferences are an important part of finding and building out your place in a research community, and it’s worth it to ask for what you need and make some compromises and sacrifices to get there.

Poster presentations. This is where I invested most of my anxiety, and where everything was honestly just fine.

Designing the poster was easily the hardest part. My first draft was a disaster. My best advice is to have other people look at it. Once you’ve spent that long staring at it, you’ve lost objectivity.Even though I massively reduced the amount of text on my poster, I wish I had done so even more. I also recommend that you do not use Illustrator to accomplish this. YUCK. I’ve heard people use powerpoint, but that sounds terrible as well. If anyone has software recommendations, please leave them in the comments!

Printing the poster was annoying. It was half the price to do so at Staples as it was at my university, but it was a pain. I went in, they told me to email it to them, I did, and then they told me I had to submit it through the website. Annoying, but it looked fine in the end, and, because I had a couple extra days, I could print it in the destination city instead of carrying it on the plane. WORTH IT. Someone else in my lab got theirs printed ahead of time on fabric, folded it into his suitcase, and that was that. That’s certainly a good option to consider if you have the lead time!

Presenting the poster was actually pretty fun. I can be quite shy in new social situations, and this conference certainly qualified as a new social situation. But the poster presentation gave me an excuse and topic to talk with others about, which helped me feel comfortable and gave me the space to get to know people. If I had something to recommend here, it’d be to keep your eye on your goal for the night. The easiest path is to use it as an opportunity to refine a “pitch” for the study, and this is really useful for that. Sort of like if you broke your arm, for the first couple of days you’d tell the story a different way, and by the end of the week, you’d have the most concise and effective story down pat. There’s a lot you can learn from this, so don’t underestimate it. But in doing this, it’s really easy to find yourself doing a lot of the talking. But you already know what you know– try to get the other people talking so you can find out what they know

Norms, etc. I made the debatable choice of using the conference as the site for an ethnography assignment for class. This meant that I was constantly taking notes about how people were behaving and how I was feeling. The pros were that I noticed a ton that I wouldn’t have otherwise and discovered that I really enjoy ethnography. The major con was that it made me very self-conscious. You are supposed to be reflexive, but yikes.

So I was really worried about violating some unspoken norm and making an ass of myself. This did not happen. (YAY!) People did try to get a sense of where you were in your career, so it was clear from the beginning of conversations that I was a lost little bunny. It sounds bad, but honestly, I asked questions like that, too, and I often told people unsolicited that it was my first conference. I thought it would be a disadvantage to be at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole, but people were kind and understanding and seemed to genuinely be interested in my lost-bunny experience.

But most of the reason I didn’t make an ass of myself is that I was too exhausted even by the end of the first day to participate in anything optional, especially if that thing were social. So as silly and obvious as this is, the most useful thing I learned is that conferences are exhausting. I was expecting something like a day full of meetings– tiring, but the kind of tiring where you’re up for a party later to unwind. Now, there were parties to go to (and I did feel obligated to go to them) but I elected not to. By the end of the first day, I knew I would have (and be) absolutely no fun, so I went to the (lovely!) hotel atruim/bar thing, had a drink with my partner to celebrate my survival, and went back to the hotel, presumably to eat some backup charcuterie and pass out.

Next year, I will be mentally prepared to work all day and party all night, but I don’t feel guilty that I didn’t take advantage of the social and networking time in my first year. I will be much more comfortable next year, and in other future conferences, now that I am confident that I have the lay of the social land. I know not everyone feels they need it, but I want to encourage you that if you do, you’re not alone.

My final thought is that it really helped me to have my partner there. Although I often gave up valuable networking opportunities because I wanted hang out with him, it was well worth the trade off for my first year to have someone you know you can reach out to when you are kicking yourself for saying something awkward or thrilled about something you learned, or proud of yourself for gathering the nerve to ask a question. I recommend finding someone you can text or talk to who will support you and help you keep perspective. It’s not a dangerous or scary event by any means, but I found it over-stimulating, to say the least, and it was really great to have someone to reach out to.

So this turned into quite the omnibus post, but hopefully it was helpful to get a sense of what your first academic conference might be like. Prepare for a lot of activity, a lot of people, and a lot of fun, but don’t feel bad if you say something silly or need a break. People understand, and they won’t remember by the time they see you next year. 😉

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Is it a teacher’s job to motivate students?

This term I’m taking a teaching course. Before our first class, we were asked to respond to the following prompt: 

When asked what he does to motivate his players, [NFL coach Chuck Noll] famously said:

I wasn’t hired to motivate players, I was hired to
 coach motivated players.”
Reflecting on your own personal philosophy of teaching, do you believe that it is your responsibility to motivate your students?  If so, how do you do it?  If not, why not?
I am very early in my learning-about-teaching career, so I expect to look back on this with a little bit of embarrassment in the future, but here’s my perspective on this prompt at the moment. Please feel free to leave your ideas in the comments!

Student motivation should be the goal of all teachers, but, in my opinion, cannot be the responsibility of the teacher alone.

Research suggests that intrinsic motivation is hugely effective, where extrinsic is not. It also suggests that extrinsic incentives, like pay in the working world or rewards like candy and contingent play time for children, effectively stomps out intrinsic motivation. So what contributes to intrinsic motivation? Autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

My experience as a student was probably not unique, but certainly colors my experience. I was an unmotivated student until I was in my twenties, and as competent and caring as my teachers were, I doubt there was anything they could do to get me to care. I did not have much autonomy (I had to be there when school was in session and I had to learn what the requirements dictated), I didn’t feel mastery (I got mediocre grades and had a what Carol Dweck would call a “fixed mindset”) and I didn’t have a sense of purpose (I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, college was a given, but I had no specific reason to be there.) I can look back on brief glimpses in school where I felt motivated— creative writing projects and extracurricular activities—and in all of those, I had the three elements of intrinsic motivation.

NFL coaches have the advantage of working only with those who have not only opted in to the team, but have in fact worked very hard to get on the team. They chose to work hard at it; their talents, developed skills, and experience made them excel at it; and they wanted to win: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. They necessarily have strong motivation if they have gotten this far, so it is reasonable to expect a coach to assume their players will be motivated. Unfortunately, most students have very little autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and haven’t for years in the curricular context. It would take a lot for a single teacher to revive the intrinsic motivation to learn, and teachers cannot give students autonomy, mastery, and purpose of their own accord.

Despite those obstacles, I keep my eye on autonomy, mastery and purpose and support them whenever I can. My teaching experience has been in a very structured class which I had no power over, so autonomy was hard to come by, but I intend to support it in the future by giving students options for projects and power over their own topic and methods. When I teach, I tie anything I can back to purpose (the ACT is boring and arbitrary and you will never use the content of this class again, but it can help you get in to the college you want so you can build a career you care about, so let’s focus on that.) The primary way I tried to help my students in this and their future classes was to work on what held me back throughout my life. I emphasize a growth mindset to support mastery. Instead of “wrong,” I think about “not yet,” and I celebrate progress to help them see that they can (and already are!) improving.

On the first day of class, I tell my students to imagine they are teaching their little cousin to do something they love— free-throws, painting, a video game— and then imagine that their cousin misses the basket or makes a mistake. Do you tell her, “wow, you are bad at this! You should probably quit trying to get better?” Of course not. We know that she’s not going to be an expert right away, and we know from experience what kind of dedicated practice it takes to improve! If you wouldn’t talk that way to your little cousin, don’t think of yourself that way either.

Although I can’t give students all the autonomy, mastery, and purpose they would need to develop intrinsic motivation, I can try to help. I find the teaching roles I’ve had so far especially suited to helping students with mastery— if they take anything away from my class, I hope it’s that they can improve, and that their skill and capacity isn’t fixed. I hope this course can give me some tools to foster as much intrinsic motivation as I can in my job.

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Winter Break 1.0

Long time, no see! I just got back from winter break. You’d think that I’d have had time to write something, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s sort of what this post is about.

Before winter break started, I was really excited about all the work I’d be able to get done. It was a simple formula:

No class = more time

Right? Not exactly

During the last lab meeting before winter break, we went around the table and talked about what we would do before we met next. I talked with my cohort about what winter break would be like. I planned my trip. I knew it was a norm to joke about how difficult it will be to get work done, but I knew I had bitten off less than I could chew. I look back on my confidence with amusement.

Now I see that having no structure in my time is, for me, a disaster. I did get the main priorities for the break completed, and I’m happy with what I’ve done, but let’s just say that if I didn’t return 5 days ahead of time just before a huge snowstorm that gave me an excuse to not leave the apartment for days on end, I would be significantly less happy.

And those few days were like pulling teeth to get anything done, even though I clearly had the time. Like the total cliche I am, I found other things to do. I cleaned, I cooked– I even baked a loaf of bread! (That part was worth it. delicious.)

It’s important to me to learn from this experience for a few reasons:

First, I will have other breaks, including summer, when I will have to get work done.

Second, and hugely, assuming all goes well, I will have a lot of unstructured time during which to write my dissertation. During that time, I need to write my dissertation, not worry about writing my dissertation and then write it all at once at the last possible moment.

Thirdly, I need to have practice imposing and conforming to structure on my time to be a researcher who succeeds in accomplishing her own priorities, rather than what happens to be urgent at that moment.

After a year or two of arranging my life pretty haphazardly and years of historic failure to handle long term projects for school, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with my productive response to the structure of last semester. What that tells me is that, just like studies suggest, I am capable of improving and building new skills. Now it’s time to extend that to productive use of unstructured time. And I’ll have several, but not unlimited opportunities to practice and refine those habits before dissertation time.

I’ll report on my plans and progress in this area, and I hope you’ll leave your suggestions for being productive with unstructured time in the comments!

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Finals week

Finals week itself is actually way less stressful this term than any term in undergrad or my master’s program, given that my semester-end projects were mostly papers, which were challenging, but due last week. So really, I’m just using it as an excuse for light blogging this week.

I do have a take home final for statistics, from which I thought I would procrastinate briefly to bring you a draft of my personal demand function for Corona lager.

Demand(Corona) = b((T – 75) i)l

T = environmental temperature (Fahrenheit)

i = thirst (arbitrary units on subjective scale from 1 to 10)

l = Do I have a lime? (Yes = 1, No = 0)

b = Have I been to the beach today? (Yes = 1, No = 0)

Alas, it is winter on the east coast, where I live now, so my demand for Corona will be stuck at zero until I leave for California in 6 days (!)

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I Would Totally Go on a Second Date with Bruno Latour

If I’d met him a few years ago (and in an alternate universe), I would totally go on a second date with Bruno Latour. I would enjoy listening to him talk: I think he has really fascinating ideas that I almost understand, but there’s enough that I haven’t quite grasped to keep me wanting more, you know?

I get the sense that he’s really passionate about the co-evolution of society and technology– he uses a lot of exclamation points–and his insistence on bringing ideas of power and dominance into conversations about the proliferation of camera technology is confusing, but in that kind of intriguing/sexy way.

Plus, I am really curious how “syntagm” is pronounced, and there’s a chance that I can get him to say it out loud.

So yeah, I would agree to a second date, because I would want to believe that there was something between us. I think I could fool myself into thinking he could respect me intellectually, at least until the waiter brought the dessert menu. (And by then, I mean, hell, you might as well try the flourless chocolate cake, right?)

He probably won’t have heard a word I said all night (he definitely wouldn’t have been listening to my anecdote about the Kodak case study I read in business school, which I at first thought was relevant, and then thought I could spin as amusing, but really by the end of it, even I realized that I had missed the point) so I won’t feel too bad if he insists on paying.

What I would really want to do is set him up with a friend of mine. That way, I wouldn’t have to date a man who would throw out the word “actant” right away, and then blaze ahead until I was too embarrassed to ask what it meant, and then define it 45 minutes later so I have to simultaneously:

1) parse the definition: “a list of answers to trials– a list which, once stabilized, is hooked to a name of a thing and to a substance.”

2) try to understand the last 45 minutes in light of this information.

3) wonder if he only defined it now because he could sense that I had no idea what he was talking about, and is he starting to think I’m an idiot?

4) wonder if he is actually trying to test out an extension of this theory in which “actant” is an actant, which is part of a program in which he (the literal enunciator?) is using vocabulary to try to get women to leave him alone (?).

5) confuse myself, and try desperately to figure out what he’s talking about now that I’ve been distracted for, let’s be honest, kind of a long time.

6) wait– did he just slam stamp collecting??

You see, I wouldn’t want to seriously date a guy who would do that, or who honestly sounds kind of high when he explains things that you are pretty sure are smart (? but, again, he could just be messing with you). Like, I was pretty sure I knew what “translations” were until he started talking, so either he’s brilliant, or so charismatic that he has me rethinking the word “substitutes” just to prove he can.

I would want to be that guy’s buddy. You know, me and Bruno getting some beers and theorizing, and arguing, and trying on ontological hats until we close down the bar? I go home feeling intellectually inferior, but in a challenged and excited way? And his girlfriend (who is grateful to me for introducing her to such a Mysterious Genius) could deal with him.

Oh my gosh, can you imagine what it would be like if, you know, down the road a few years when you’re living with him? And whatever spark you’d mustered is kind of gone, but you’re comfortable, and you have your own lives, but he keeps forgetting to do the laundry, so you leave him a note on the fridge? And then he dissects your note and your sighs and your conspicuous placement of the laundry basket and tells you all about how “unreal” your program is, and explains, in a sort of exhausted tone, how he’s going to continue to create anti-programs until you truly innovate? And how he explains this in tiny little words, which he defines right away, because that’s the only way he thinks you can understand by now?

Yeah, no thanks. A second date, but that’s it.

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Art, Science, and Audience

This week we are reading about and discussing “the Public Intellectual.” We read short stories by scientists, browsed scholar’s websites, and watched a TED talk by one of our professors. I wrote the following blog post for an assignment in reaction to these examples and ideas: 

I’ve always been a big hobby-sampler– I do a little bit of a lot of things– and the things I really care about don’t get the time investment it takes to make them great. When I moved out here, the constraints of leaving behind my social network and bringing only what I could fit in within the 50lb checked-bag limit brought me a great opportunity, and I selected a single hobby.

I decided to pursue art in my free time. I minored in art in college, but had mostly done Really Fancy Crafts since I graduated.

portfolioimg dpesvette gridgrowl

The distinction I am drawing between art and crafts isn’t an evaluation of merit, by the way, and I only use it to classify my own work, not others’, but for reference, here’s what I mean. Both art and crafts can be decorative, functional, meaningful, and therapeutic to create, but the design of crafts are informed primarily by another design or a process, where the design of art is informed by my subjective translation of some idea.

Here’s an example of a craft I did.

larrydadcompare

The photo on the right is of my commissioner with his dad on an old Harley. It’s meaningful and beautiful, but not suited for display because of its size and condition. He wanted to be able to enjoy the image, and I was able to use the photo, a google image search for the name of the bike, and a surprisingly small amount of human judgement to create the painting on the left. The subject, medium, composition, and style reflect only necessity, my aesthetic preferences, and the desires of the guy who paid me :)

Here’s an example of art I made.

harmony (1)

It was physically simpler to make, but the subject, form, media, and style all carry meaning. Here’s a section of the document I used to imagine, refine, and embody an idea into that piece.

banner

You can see that I started with a big, abstract idea (“happiness”) and created a mind map around that idea to settle on a more specific idea I was interested in (“harmony”). At the risk of “explaining the joke,” I’ll explain more of the process to give you an example of how art (as I see it) differs from craft, and perhaps give you a sense of why I find producing art to be rewarding.

I had recently joined a singing group when I made this piece, and was thinking about the human diversity in the group and how it served to build a more complete and beautiful whole in the same way that our musical harmony did. It also took me far out of my comfort zone. So I did some thinking about different dimensions on which humans or ideas can vary. I decided on a matrix design for the concept (I wanted 4 parts, much like we had tenor, lead, baritone, and bass singers), which led me to select two visual dimensions on which the piece could vary. In homage to the abandonment of my habits for new adventures, I forwent my usual style (2 dimensional, monochromatic, representational work) for something I’d never done (3D, full color, abstraction). I designed a bridge shape for the form, to represent the way in which diversity itself can form a link between very different people and how the meeting of each with the others elevates all. The result is 4 sections which start out flat and get taller in the center, where they meet. Diversity is abstracted and visually represented on two dimensions: complexity of structure and breadth of color range.

Now did I expect the audience at that show to look at that and go, “oh! she must belong to an a cappella group?” Of course not :). I want to take my experience and perspective, bring it into a form that evokes these ideas and feelings in me, and allow others to see what they want in it, from their perspectives and experience. That way, as long as I take responsibility to make it maximally true of me, there’s a chance that someone else can see it and think or feel something true of them, and in that moment is the connection I am looking for.

All of that to say, although I enjoy the process and respect the skills required for crafts, I missed the creative thought, iterative meaning-making, and attempt to connect that is part of art.  When I moved, I committed to making that my hobby. Because my thoughts and experiences and perspectives now are so thoroughly informed by and immersed in the thought and science of graduate school, I am making art that responds to and reflects on that experience. Here’s my current work in progress: a 7-foot tall, nontraditional embroidery piece with the working title “Grasp.”

My hope, which I admit is lofty and far out of reach at the moment, is for the art I am making now to be a part of my public scholar profile, to be another avenue to communicate my findings, and to be a jumping off point to discuss the subjective experience of doing science.

Scientists do their best to expand human knowledge and share what they learn, but have to accept the likelihood of an overwhelming majority misunderstanding or not caring about that knowledge much of the time. Artists and scientists, in that way, are very similar and, I think, brave.

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Another Perspective!

One of my cohort-mates (is that a word?) writes a blog, too! In fact, he’s been doing it for way longer than I have: 10 years to my ~10 days.

Ed has a particularly interesting perspective because he’s a part-time Ph.D. student who also works for the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. Because of his work there and his career, he’s much more expert about information studies and its topics than I am. He writes pretty thorough descriptions of what we read and discuss in each of our classes, too, so if you’re interested in learning more about what we learn, Ed’s blog is a great opportunity to read about it!

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Why Privacy Matters

I don’t care much about my own privacy. My facebook profile (under my first, middle, and last name) is mostly public, I gave mint.com my banking password, and I don’t cover my webcam with a sticker. You could say that I don’t feel I have much to hide, which is true. However, I do think the right to privacy is a crucial element of a free society and that it’s important for all of us, even those who don’t have anything to hide, to fight to protect that right.

It’s trendy to see privacy as a currency we trade to make cool things, or to stay safe, or to make some other tradeoff that we care about. Although I do compromise some of my own sensitive information for my own convenience, treating others privacy like a commodity is a serious problem.

This blog post is coming out of a class discussion in which one of my classmates asserted that archived data, even data that includes sensitive or personally identifiable information, should be made public online. I’m going to try to convince you that, even if you personally don’t care about privacy, privacy is important and is worth protecting for others, here and abroad, now and in the future.

I think it’s easy and natural to form political or other society-wide opinions based on your beliefs, your circumstances, and how it would effect you. I also think, however, that it is our responsibility as voters, as scholars who work with data about others, and even as humans who could open their mouths within earshot of other humans to consider how those ideas, if implemented, would effect other people in different communities, legal environments, and circumstances.

But you wouldn’t look at other political issues this way, would you? How just would it be for me to say, “I don’t use welfare, so let’s get rid of it,” or, “I don’t have kids who use public education, so we should eliminate it.”

Here’s the bottom line. If you believe that records should be open, or that privacy doesn’t matter, or that “I don’t care; I don’t have anything to hide,” you believe one of two things:

  1. Every human society, now and in the future has norms and laws are basically fair and all communities’ reactions or legal punishments will be just
    OR
  2. People who violate the unjust norms of their community or laws of their country should be required to live a fundamentally less free life

For example, I am a highly educated, white, heterosexual American who lives in a liberal state, works at a university, and I have no stigmatized disabilities or illnesses. Pretty lucky, right? But even I have made some life choices and hold controversial political opinions that I wisely keep to myself in some contexts. There could be real consequences that do meaningful harm to me in my in my religious community or workplace if it were public knowledge that I’d visited Planned Parenthood, for example, or voted to legalize marijuana.

The argument there could be, well, Karen– find a more liberal place to work, or a more accepting religious community. But imagine if that solution is implemented across the board, including for people with much bigger secrets than a UTI and a bleeding heart political philosophy. You’d be requiring people who are already facing huge barriers to normal life because of how they were born, where they were born, or even circumstances outside their control to live even less free lives than they are already able to.  For example, people who want access to birth control, gay people, and women who have been raped who live in conservative communities, states, or countries could face dire social and legal consequences– in some places they could even (legally!) be killed.

It would be nice if we lived in a world where the playing field was level and every one could be trusted to be basically reasonable, or adjust their worldview given new information. (My classmate’s argument as I understood it was that if all this sensitive data were to be released, society would be forced to “get over it.”) We do not live in that world: even in the US in 2015 people are being shot for being black, fired for being gay, arrested for legal protests, and publicly shamed and losing their jobs for violating unjust social norms or making a misunderstood joke. Risking lives and livelihoods by betting that all people throughout the world will suddenly see reason is cruelly irresponsible.

And what about the tradeoff? Increasing human knowledge is, of course, important– so important to me that I moved across the country to a place that is cold to live on a graduate student’s stipend for the chance to pursue that end. But the trade off is not open data or no data. The trade off is that only trained people who jumped through some hoops with an IRB can see and use it.

We cannot let the our enthusiasm for the Cool Stuff we can do obscure our view of potential consequences of our actions. I can see that there is an additional benefit to crowdsourcing, citizen science, and collective intelligence, but I do not believe that that additional benefit is worth the risk when the people who the data describes did not have the opportunity to give their informed consent to its release. It may also be true that the wisdom of the crowd could help us better understand contagious diseases, chemical weapons, or military strategy, but the risk that some will misuse or misunderstand it prevents us from opening our labs, materials, and plans to the public.

I am very curious about your thoughts about privacy and open data. Please leave me a note in the comments!

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Preventing loneliness, burnout, and other miseries

Before coming to graduate school, I read a lot about how depressing and frustrating and difficult it is. Not just the coursework or the research, in fact, few of the complaints I had read even mentioned those things. They talked about feeling alone, depressed, unsupported, and especially poor. Every week or so on the forums, there’s a post like this, about quitting. Just today, a friend shared this article about the hidden cost of graduate school with me (hint, it’s your mental health.)

This was interesting, since the first doc students I met were notable and inspiring because they loved their work so much. They definitely had a lot of late nights and anxiety about comps, or the job market, but at the end of the day, they loved their work and got a lot done.

So what is the difference?

Here’s what my friend shared, along with that article, on Facebook:

 

Research suggests social support networks are among the most reliable predictors of happiness and success, that social support networks prevent people (and even rats!) from forming debilitating addictions, and are more productive, engaged, energetic, and resilient (see: this TED talk about addiction and Happiness Advantage for the rest. No, I won’t stop citing that book.)

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Many of us moved thousands of miles (even over oceans) to come to graduate school, and maintaining old friendships is hard when they are far away. Many graduate students report feeling less engaged with their old friends after starting a new routine and lifestyle with different concerns. Many people tend to pull away from their social support network when work gets tough. Breaking in to new friend groups is challenging, especially with limited time and money, and it will still be a while before you may feel comfortable being yourself around new people.

So what’s the solution?

I think the only thing to do is acknowledge that making new friends is scary and difficult, and that it will take a long time, and commit to doing it anyway. We have a weekly cohort social event, even though there are so few of us, and some of my lab mates have been really welcoming. I’ve started attending a church I can walk to, and I’m planning to start and host a meetup group when I get up the nerve (and money :) It’s going to be hard, but it’s too important to give up on.

The risk here is feeling rejected and exhausted when you can’t immediately replicate old, close friendships, and I certainly get that feeling. That’s a perfectly healthy way to feel, and you don’t need to feel guilty or weak if you experience that. Be compassionate with yourself and remember this day 5 years from now, when you meet a first-year :)

A friend of mine (now a PhD) suggested to me that perhaps it would be best if all graduate students checked in with a therapist occasionally, and especially at the outset. I did exactly that, and I now feel much less alone, and much less afraid of failure. Find some Emotional hygiene habits and techniques that work for you– prayer, meditation, exercise, art– and defend your self-investment time consistently. This resilience you’ll build won’t just help you fearlessly befriend new people, but also bounce back from setbacks and failures in your research, finish big projects, and weather the job market.

 

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