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2016 Book Roundup

3 Jan

I keep track of the books I read (aside from baby books, which we read by the handful everyday), so I thought this year I’d try something new and share my thoughts on some of the books.  For a few years I’ve been trying to read more female authors, more non-American authors, and more nonfiction.  This year I read less than previous years (or did a worse job of keeping track), with 29 books over the year.  Of 19 unique authors, I had 14 women (best yet!) and 5 men; 11 Americans and 8 non-Americans.  I did a bad job of reading nonfiction this year- a paltry 3 books out of the 29.  I also got REALLY obsessed with a few scifi series, so let’s talk about those first.

SCIENCE FICTION

Books by Octavia Butler: Fledgling, Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, Patternmaster.  Inspired in part by the city of LA celebrating Octavia Butler during 2016, I went on a binge with this masterful fable-teller who works in race, gender, interesting power dynamics, commentary on social structures, and surprising action scenes into her imaginative worlds.  The latter four are part of a loose series; the first one is about racist vampires (Yes, you read that right).  Plus she wrote this awesome note to herself:

octavia_butler_note

From the magnificent Huntington Library in Pasadena, which I recommend visiting.

I still haven’t read her most famous books, Kindred and the Parable series.  There’s plenty of Octavia Butler to explore and she’s fantastic; can’t recommend her enough.

The Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games, Babylon’s Ashes.  This series written by two dudes in New Mexico is now a TV show on ScyFy!  I have not watched it because the books are sort of gory, tense, and scary, and I don’t handle that well in TV (despite reading stuff like The Walking Dead, Preacher, Watchmen, etc. in graphic novel format).  These pleasantly popcorn-y books hide smart literary themes and a surprisingly deep study of their characters- Nemesis Games is my favorite one because each of our protagonists goes on their own adventure and you can appreciate how much they’ve affected each other.  The characters feel fully fleshed out and fun, with lots of flaws and learning about relationships and communication.  Also, they have to constantly save all of humanity from itself/evil aliens/evil people trying to use alien technology.  So that’s a blast.  Definitely recommend for sci-fi enthusiasts.

Unrelated science fiction/fantasy books: 

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Leguin is great.  Perhaps the beginning of feminist science fiction?  This is a classic that took me too long to get around to reading. Also great for non-science fiction nerds.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman was the first book I read in 2016.  Creepy classic Gaiman.  He did a reading/speaking event here in Austin near the beginning of the year and we saw him read a few of his short stories and poems; it was astonishing.

Assassin’s Apprentice and Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb: these are the first two pulpy fantasy books in a series.  The first book is super fun and includes puppies (not really a spoiler: main character can talk to dogs), but the second book drags.  My spouse read the third and said everything stops making sense.  The first one is super fun if you want a quick fantasy read with puppies in it!  I cried (in a good way).

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card: I had read Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow and never came around to this third book.  I really enjoyed it!  The big reveal is SUPER COOL (if no one spoils it for you/you don’t read the prologue) and the pedantic self-righteousness that can plague OSC books is at a minimum (still there but not horrible).

Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois: there are 32 of these; we have maybe 25 of them.  Fantastic huge collections of the best short stories from that year in science fiction; Dozois does a really good job of including a huge array of diverse voices.  Some of these stories haunt me for years, which means they’re really good.  If you run across one of these volumes it’s worth a buy; you can read and reread these for years.

THE BEST AND MOST IMPORTANT BOOK I READ IN 2016: AMERICANAH BY CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHE.  By this point I think I’m on my fourth copy of this book- I keep giving it away to people and telling them that it’s important and that they should read it and pass it on.  Plenty of people this year read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is an important non-fiction book but I hear is a bummer (I have not read it yet and will likely not until my very strong pregnancy hormones taper away).  This book is fiction, which I think is a little bit easier to swallow and still get similar messages across.  Race, immigrant experiences, gender, education, society, and mental health are all tied in to this love story.  If you read a single book from the books I have read in 2016, make it this one.

THE SECOND BEST BUT NOT THAT IMPORTANT BOOK I READ IN 2016: OUTLINE BY RACHEL CUSK.  This is an experimental-feeling novel where not much happens but you feel a lot of feelings.  Beautiful and evocative prose; I read and reread this book and told several others to read it.  It feels like having a big glass of water while standing in a waterfall- you aren’t sure where the book (the waterfall) ends and you (glass of water) begin, but you’re enjoying a refreshing experience.

Mom books: 

How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish is a great resource for humans; you could easily replace “kids” with “people” in the title and get the same result.  And it includes comic strips if you don’t want to read the whole thing (which is what my spouse did)!  Takeaways: feelings are legitimate and difficult to handle, and we need to validate each other and help each other instead of shutting each other down.  No one likes getting nagged all the time; people like having some autonomy/power/choice, and thrive off of responsibility/reasonable expectations.  The book is chock full of specific and concrete anecdotes and exercises.  It’s from 1980 but it doesn’t feel too dated (everyone in it is white though).

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin is a South Korean novel (one of two I read this year) which is haunting and sad and about the sacrifices of motherhood.  I would definitely not read it when in a heightened emotional state.  It also makes you want to call your mom

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang is the other South Korean novel I read this year.  This is GREAT.  I gave my copy to my mother-in-law.  It’s a wonderful short fable about motherhood and would make a great mother’s day gift to tell someone how much you appreciate them.  Plot synopsis: a hen really wants a baby; she adopts a duck egg and spends her life helping her baby learn to fly/fit in where he belongs. It’s adorable and wonderful.  Would also be great for adopted parents.

All other books:

An Abundance of Catherines by John Green: I adored The Fault in Our Stars as a book and movie (and blog post) but hated this book.  I’m not sure why I finished it.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova- every few years I reread this hauntingly beautiful and soft first-person novel about a neuroscientist with early onset Alzheimer’s.  That should tell you how good I think this book is.

The Devil You Know by Claire Kilroy- a satire about the housing crisis and 2008 recession as it affected Ireland.  Generally I like reading non-American authors because it feels like a dip into another culture while still celebrating the universality of the human experience; this one was pretty heavy on the “other culture” part.  Always surprising (in a good way) with an Anglophone country.  I identified far more with the South Korean novels than this one; maybe because I’m Asian or maybe because this was super Irish.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel- a very popular science fiction post-apocalyptic book by a not-science-fiction author.  Unfortunately with my delving into sci-fi over the past few years it’s become harder for me to enjoy these sorts for books, because a small voice inside me (that sounds like my spouse) is screaming “how does this make sense?!?!?!”  I read this lightly and enjoyed a lot of it, but there are a few pages which sum up what I hated about the book: at some point, several of the characters chat about how they didn’t really pay attention in science class and don’t know how things work.  Despite, you know, BOOKS and LIBRARIES and LEARNING.

The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am by Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold- talk about weird other culture experiences!  This Icelandic book is extremely sad and absurd.  I’ve enjoyed absurdist Icelandic music and movies but literature might be a bit too much for me.

So What are You Going to Do With That? by Susan Elizabeth Basalla – I wrote about this in my ‘finding a job’ blog post.

Ashley Turner by Dean Koontz- absolutely the worst thing I’ve read since that Justin Bieber book.

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson- calming and funny and smart.

This blog post got really long!  Wow!  Happy New Year folks!  Goals for my year: survive this pregnancy, make sure my kid survives it, have a baby, get a job, keep up a every-other-week schedule on the blog (versus every week for the past two years).  Thanks to all who have contacted me about job leads- please keep them coming if you hear of anything in the Charlotte, NC area or remote work that you think I would be interested in/awesome at.

The employers’ argument for parental leave

22 Dec
As you may be aware, I’m having a baby in three months.  My spouse’s work offers one week of parental leave to non-primary caretakers of new babies, so I decided to put an hour in of internet research to see if I could make a little report that he could send on to HR or someone who might be interested.  And then since I did that, I figured I’d post it to here!  Happy holidays dear reader!  Maybe this will be helpful to someone.
The main sources are all freely available on the internet.
Overall takeaways:
  • Jobs that offer paid parental leave are increasingly important for Millennials and young workers and increase employee retention, as seen in the CWF study as well as the California experiment.
  • Paid parental leave has no negative economic impact on employers, as in California experiment.
  • Longer parental leave increases employee satisfaction with work-life balance, which increases worker happiness and thus productivity.
  • For employees who are partners with other employees, leave for the non-gestating employee increases work-life balance satisfaction for the gestating employee and retention for that employee.
Here’s the Department of Labor briefing on paternity leave: https://www.dol.gov/asp/policy-development/paternityBrief.pdf.  Selected quotes (sources mentioned are available at the end of this short briefing:)
  • “In one study of working fathers in the U.S., those who took leaves of two weeks or more were much more likely to be actively involved in their child’s care nine months after birth – including feeding, changing diapers, and getting up in the night.6 Studies from other countries have confirmed that fathers who take more paternity leave have higher satisfaction with parenting and increased engagement in caring for their children.7”
  •  “Fathers are increasingly concerned about work-life balance, and nearly half of men surveyed report that the demands of work interfere with family life.11”
  • “In a 2014 study of highly educated professional fathers in the U.S., nine of out ten reported that it would be important when looking for a new job that the employer offered paid parental leave, and six out of ten considered it very or extremely important. These numbers were even higher for millennial workers.23”
Here’s a 2010 California study on Paid Family Leave, which was implemented in 2004 and offered employees six weeks of leave at 55% of salary (followed by New Jersey and Washington): http://cepr.net/documents/publications/paid-family-leave-1-2011.pdf.  This offers concrete evidence of the effects of paid family leave in general.
  • Most employers report that PFL had either a “positive effect” or “no noticeable effect” on productivity (89 percent), profitability/performance (91 percent), turnover (96 percent), and employee morale (99 percent).
  • Relevant pages: 7-10
Here’s a Center for Work and Family (out of Boston College) report on paternity leave: http://www.thenewdad.org/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/BCCWF_The_New_Dad_2014_FINAL.157170735.pdf
  • Look at this chart, based on over 1000 worker fathers who were mostly (over 90%) well-educated professionals:
  • importance-of-paid-leave-the-new-dad-2014
  • “Only 20% of the study participants felt that all of the time off should be taken consecutively beginning with the birth of their children. More than 75% preferred the option to take the paid time off when it was most needed after the birth, within a specified period of time such as six months. For example, over a six month period after the birth of their child, they could take two weeks at the beginning and then additional days off as needed up to the maximum amount allowed.”
  • Pages 1-14 are about worker desires, pages 15-20 are about employers’ implementations, including spotlights on Ernst and Young, Deloitte, and American Express.  “• For policies that didn’t differentiate between primary and secondary caregivers, fathers were given an average of two weeks of paid leave • For policies that did have designated provisions for fathers who were primary or secondary caregivers, fathers as primary caregivers were given an average of about eight weeks, which was approximately three times as much as the leave offered to secondary caregivers”
  • Takeaways: “Nearly three quarters of the fathers believed that the most appropriate amount of time for fathers to have off for paternity leave is between two and four weeks… 76% of fathers would prefer the option of not taking all their time off immediately following the birth of their children”
  • Pages 27-28 are concrete recommendations for employers.
If no one wants to read this post , here’s a great and easy to read article from ThinkProgress that similarly cites a bunch of studies and includes anecdotal evidence titled “How Everyone Benefits When New Fathers Take Paid Leave.”  I highly recommend this article.

“Strange” escapism- media thoughts

23 Nov

This post is like two posts put into one.  A way for me to process my feelings about the election by not talking about current events at all.  Part 1 is about news media, Part 2 is about Dr. Strange.

Over the past few months I’ve been getting more and more exhausted with the “OUTRAGEOUS! OUTRAGE!” tone in my usual liberal news-thinkpiece sites (I read a lot of Slate and Jezebel); I think those sites have also started getting sick of being constantly outraged by the latest something that some conservative bigot/racist/misogynist/generally bad person has done.  Or maybe they’ve become more leery of the language of outrage since the death of Gawker (covered in Slate with a line that’s stuck with me: “The Internet masses had found a new vice, outrage, to replace our voyeurism.”)  Links on this topic: a super long, fairly defensive reflection in NY Magazine by the former editor in chief of Gawker, a surprisingly newsy story on what happened in the Daily Beast, and a slow-to-load but funnily Gawker-like list of responses to Gawker’s death, including this quote: “I think Gawker did for some what Trump does for some. Both let their friends and supporters be comfortable in being terrible people.” (Erick Erickson, noted conservative blogger/radio host).

Anyway, to help combat my liberal outrage-fatigue, I thought I’d try to read some conservative news sites (which I’ve blogged about before, maybe notably in my Yale reflection).  So I started with Breitbart and Drudge Report, but the angry rhetoric there mirrored exactly the outraged rhetoric on the liberal sites- those whiny, thin skinned snowflake liberals who don’t believe people can make their own decisions.  Then someone turned me on to National Review, which is now my go-to conservative news site.  They also make fun of lefties, but they’re less obsessed with it and more focused on how to continue to progress on the conservative agenda.  I like it when people think about actions and what to do in the future, even if I disagree with their premises.  I just opened the site and a random article, and here’s a line that popped out at me: “Here’s some free advice for all the liberals insisting that Trump was elected by racists: The more you say that, the more you help Trump.”  Also, if like me you are a dirty liberal, you’ll be soothed by the way the National Review covers Republican infighting.  If you are not like me, you might just like the National Review!  They’re thoughtful and logical and much less angry-outrageous-clickbaity than other sites I’ve seen [I am also open to more suggestions!  I read the libertarian site Reason Magazine sometimes, but they think we’re all idiots so I get tired of that rhetoric as well].

So my main goal of writing this post was to tell you about the escapism that we did last weekend- we went and saw Dr. Strange at the movie theatre (this is a big deal to us!  We very rarely go out to the movies now because of babysitter requirements).  I got distracted thinking about the liberal media, which touched on the whitewashing that happens in this movie a few months ago.  It first came to my attention on the blog Angry Asian Man, and has been covered in a bunch of other various sites (for instance: cinema blend, variety, fusion-this is my favorite one).  Basically, the Ancient One is a main character/jedi master for padawan Dr. Strange, and was created by Lee and Ditko as an ultra-stereotypical mystical Tibetan old dude.  Most of the lines that Tilda Swinton says in the movie would be ridiculous if an Asian person said them (they’re already ridiculous, but Tilda Swinton can pull them off just as well as she can pull of her slightly agender character).  Lots of stuff that sounds like someone read the Tao Te Ching and imagined Mr. Miyagi.

So, to avoid making a racist and offensive caricature of the character, Marvel decided to change the Ancient One into a Celtic woman.  But inexplicably keep the whole Himalayas/white guy travels to the Far East for mystical wisdom and returns to the civilized West to save the world trope.  Here are two different reactions to this situation by critics/writers:

Pro-Derrickson/whitewashing (I love that this article starts with the “yellow elephant in the room”)

While this desire to keep from reinforcing negative Asian stereotypes is commendable, it also created a Catch-22 situation for the director. Does he create a “dragon lady” that causes Asians to protest the perpetuation of a negative Asian stereotype? Or does he remove the Asian aspect of this character, but in doing so, cause Asians to protest the removal of what was supposed to be an iconic Asian character. There is no easy answer either way.  So Derrickson decided to take the path that he thought was best.

So before we bring out the pitchforks, it is important to consider intent. If Derrickson was pressured into recasting The Ancient One as a white woman to make the film more commercial, then I’ll be the first one to pick up a torch. But if he made this decision based solely on his own creative vision of the film, then I think it’s fair to withhold judgment on this subject and critique the movie solely on its cinematic merits. Because ultimately, as long as Swinton’s performance improves the film (and in this case, it most definitely does), it’s hard to fault the director for his artistic choice.

I actually think the next pull quote addresses this situation pretty well, but I’ll also make a nod to myself and a past blog post, and say your intentions don’t matter as much as the effects of your work.  So if you say you didn’t intend to be racist, that doesn’t alleviate that you hurt someone with a racist action.  Plus most people outside the KKK (and maybe also inside) won’t ever say “Oh, I meant to be racist” so saying “I didn’t mean to be racist” is about as deep as saying “the sky is up.”  Later in this post I will tell you that I LOVED Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One and I have a solution.

Anti Derrickson/whitewashing: (but they loved the movie, as did I)

Why did Derrickson feel his only options to portray the Ancient One were to either make the character one racist stereotype or another? This wasn’t some Catch 22. You could still write the ancient mystic leader role with nuance.  And for the most part, Derrickson and his co-writers succeeded — but with a performer who isn’t Asian….

And they elevated the Wong character (played by Benedict Wong, the film’s only Asian in a speaking role). In the comics, Wong was merely Doctor Strange’s cabana boy (yet another stereotype, the Asian sidekick). But in the film, he is Strange’s philosophical superior. Wong has agency in the plot, answers to almost no one except his own work and also owns the funniest sequence in the film. The director and writers clearly have the talent and imagination to dodge or upend stereotypes.

Other things: I loved the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast on this topic, if you’re more of a listener than a reader.  I also like this tweet:

Okay, so you’re all caught up on your reading now (I really do like the Fusion article).  So here’s my take on what they should have thought about doing instead of what happened.  First, here’s a cover of a comic book showing Dr. Strange; image from Wikipedia:

strange

Note that Dr. Strange here is totally red, and has lots of facial hair.  So… just looking at this picture, I don’t see it tied to a particular ethnicity.  Let’s take a look at the original Ancient One (also from wikipedia):

ancientone

This dude is Tibetan, but they turned him into a Celtic lady.  So there’s no reason to not change the Dr. Strange of ambiguous ethnic background into …

johnchoTHIS GUY.

Hear me out (also, this headshot was taken from the inimitable starringjohncho.com).  Instead of going to the Himalayas for absolutely no reason, our hero Dr. Strange hears about this Celtic Ancient One and heads to Ireland.  This also makes more sense if the Ancient One is Celtic.  I’ve read a Wrinkle in Time and the Chronicles of Narnia; I’m pretty sure there’s as much magic in the British Isles as there is in Tibet.  Now we haven’t whitewashed out a character because OUR MOVIE HAS AN ASIAN LEADING MAN, and we get to keep Tilda Swinton who really is great in the movie.  I have nothing against Benedict Cumberbatch except he’s going the way Jude Law did in 2004, when he appeared in six big movies.  Too much Benedict Cumberbatch, not enough John Cho (or other Asian actor).

This is the obvious solution to me, anyway.  The reviews of Dr. Strange praise the visual effects, the side characters (POC Mordo and Wong), Tilda Swinton, but I haven’t seen a lot of praise for Benedict Cumberbatch.  They just needed a white guy to lead the movie.  So why not grab an Asian guy instead?  This should be a rule: if you ever whitewash a character of X ethnic background, you should change a white character into that X background.

I think I could just keep writing and thinking about this topic, so I’ll stop here instead.  Happy Thanksgiving, reader!  Good luck with politics and family.

The non-academic job search (Part 0)-Deciding to leave

26 Oct

Hi!  Pregnancy this time around has been kicking my butt, but I’m hoping as second trimester goes on that I’ll start feeling better and posting more/being more of an upright person.  Here’s the post, which is a mishmash of thoughts from the past year.

If you missed Part 1 of this, that doesn’t matter because it comes after!  But here’s the link just in case you wanted to see it.  I spend that post talking about the steps I took after deciding to leave, but realized that lots of people are in the position that I’m in and might want to know how I decided to leave mathademia, which has been my happy home for years (sometimes larger than I’d like to admit).

A mentor of mine from my undergraduate days wrote a fantastic piece about going from his tenure-track job to working for Google; I recommend the whole thing.  He talks about money, time, intellectual challenge, and committee work as his factors. Here’s an excerpt:

At the time, my assessment of the private sector  vs. academia was pretty bleak: Your salary is higher, but the price you pay for that is longer hours at a mind-numbing job with a micro-managing boss. But it turns out, things aren’t actually that extreme. In fact, there are a lot of nice things about the private sector, that make the comparison much more subtle, even if you take money completely out of the picture.

When I started seriously thinking about my future, I gave him a call and asked for advice on leaving academia and making the decision.  He strongly suggested picking up this book, which I also highly recommend:

This book made me turn from despairing and feeling like a failure to hopeful and inspired- it’s full of stories of people with Ph.D.s who went on to do other non-academic things, and concrete advice for turning a CV into a resume, etc.  I read this book before the other ones (parachute, in transition).  I also talked to as many non-academic math Ph.D.s as I could (or really, just the ones I ran into, which is a surprising number of people!  We’re everywhere!) about their transitions and how they chose their lives.

A lot of applied math or stat people are fine.  They do, in general, big data/data science and program and make lots of money (also, pure math people who know how to and enjoy programming also make lots of money and are fine).  I’ve heard of one particular data science fellowship specifically for master’s/Ph.D. students, and I’m sure there are others out there.  Also my friend Jeremy definitely does something with data now and is very nice and helpful and I’m just volunteering him now to talk to my blog readers (and point you toward his blog if this is something you are interested in).

That hopefulness really buoyed me forward, as did reading Jesse’s second blog post on this topic.  Here’s an excerpt again contrasting mathademia with non-academia:

In the end, the process of getting a non-academic job can be long and complex. At the beginning, it feels completely hopeless, but the more you learn and the more non-academics you talk to, the better it gets. And here’s the kicker: There are a lot of jobs out there where the supply and demand dynamics are completely the opposite of academia – where employers are desperately seeking qualified applicants. Once you find your way there, and see what it’s like applying for a job where you’re NOT one of 500 applicants for a single position, it’s completely worth it.

I ended up writing a big board of pros and cons of staying in academia- the biggest con for me is the moving/not having a choice of where to live and raise my family.  But plenty of academics successfully have families, so this con might not be as big to you.  The biggest pro is research/choosing what problems to work on, but that definitely did not outweigh the lack of control in where to live.  Of course my situation is a little different because I have a relatively immobile spouse (lots of professors seem to be married to other professors, doctors, or lawyers rather than high-power financial software developers), and if he wasn’t in the picture maybe my pro/con weights would be different.

Anyways, I agonized over this for a few months, reading that book, thinking about what people said.  One former post-doc, now software developer, told me he hates that he works “for someone else’s dream” vs. when he did his own research.  I guess that’s why they pay him the big bucks (or, y’know, at least some bucks).

When I did an ethnographic research project in Vietnam in 2009, one mathematician told me “what do I need money for?  I travel, I do what I love, I eat well, what would I spend more money on?”  My advisor told me about an exchange he had with a family member, where they asked him if he would do his job even without the money.  He said yes (though probably less of it).  It’s a theme I’ve run into a lot with mathematicians: mathematicians really, REALLY love math and/or teaching.

Back in 2012, I watched a video of an old friend of mine teaching a lesson about logarithms.  She LOVED teaching (and math).  Here’s a great minute-long clip.  You can tell just by watching how much she LOVED teaching.

Thinking about her, and the Vietnamese woman I’d spoken to those years ago, I just couldn’t compare my passion for these things to theirs.  Not to say that you have to be super passionate about your job (sometimes a job really is just a job), but if you have the luxury of making a choice, why not be a little picky?

I had to wrestle with feeling like a failure for not going into academia (this is a real thing) even though my advisor and others explicitly told me that I am not at all a failure for not following their path.  Eventually I had to listen to myself/the advice I’d been given a long time ago: “Swim in your own lane.”  I even say this at the beginning of this video.

Anyway, it’s a long and personal journey, and as a Ph.D. friend in industry once told me, “the hardest thing about leaving academia is deciding to leave academia.”  I can’t say I agree wholeheartedly with that yet (I still don’t have a job for next year), but I can definitely say that it was hard, and I’m around for you if you want to reach out and talk to me about it (contact info is all over this blog).

 

What is a “trigger warning”? What is a “safe space”?

26 Aug

This week a professor friend of mine posted and lauded the letter that University of Chicago president sent out to all incoming freshmen which said a bunch of reasonable and universal/noncontroversial stuff, and also this paragraph:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

They, being a professor, then did some research into what exactly trigger warnings and safe spaces are, and then posted that this letter was “an embarrassment.”  So why did my friend have such a change of heart?  For that, let’s learn what these phrases mean.

trigger warning is a statement given before someone interacts with new material (e.g. a book, an article, a video, etc.) which alerts them of potentially disturbing content (e.g. graphic description of sexual violence, war scenes, etc.).  There’s a great op-ed piece in the NYT from last year that delves deeply into this:

Triggered reactions can be intense and unpleasant, and may even overtake our consciousness, as with a flashback experienced by a war veteran. But even more common conditions can have this effect. Think, for example, about the experience of intense nausea. It comes upon a person unbidden, without rational reflection. And you can no more reason your way out of it than you reasoned your way into it. It’s also hard, if not impossible, to engage productively with other matters while you are in the grip of it. You might say that such states temporarily eclipse our rational capacities.

The idea behind trigger warnings is that they give time for the reader/viewer/listener to prepare themselves or brace themselves for what’s coming, in hopes that they can rationally deal with the material.  In practice, they’re basically the same as the little box that says “this movie rated PG-13 for containing partial nudity” and most people can ignore them (idea from that op-ed).  There are many arguments out there against trigger warnings; one of the most cited is the “Coddling of the American Mind” article, where they analogize avoiding difficult subjects with phobias:

A person who is trapped in an elevator during a power outage may panic and think she is going to die. That frightening experience can change neural connections in her amygdala, leading to an elevator phobia. If you want this woman to retain her fear for life, you should help her avoid elevators.

There are great points in that article; namely, that turning disclaimers of difficult readings into optional readings does a disservice to students (they offer the example of professors not wanting to teach rape law).  I think the authors of this article and the professor of the first op-ed can agree that the point is for students to engage with difficult material.  However, the Atlantic piece authors believe that not including trigger warnings is the way to do so, while the NYT piece author believes the exact opposite.  So which is it?  Why the different views?

This is why mathematicians love definitions.  The Atlantic piece authors start with the same definition as I did, but then add another consequence:

Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.

And therein lies the problem!  Trigger warnings exist so that students can engage with a work, but the authors say they exist so students can choose to not do so.  This jumbled definition is why there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between some news sources which laud “not supporting trigger warnings” (The Federalist (conservative/libetartarian), Reason magazine (libertarian), Intellectual Takeout (conservative/liberal)) and those that do not (Slate (liberal), Vox (this is a great piece), New Republic (this is not as good as the Vox piece)).

Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum (besides math?).  This whole controversy is part of a larger trend as demographics change, political landscapes change, and universities change.  There are many examples in practice of students actively refusing to engage with material that might question their assumptions (first example that comes to my mind was the Duke freshmen not wanting to read the non-required recommendation “Fun Home”), and this is something that all these public intellectuals of various political backgrounds want to avoid.

There’s a lot to say about this, but I want to move on to the next definition, so I’ll leave you with this article by NYMagazine, which happily acknowledges that the U of C letter totally messes up on ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ but also says that it has some important things to say.  Here’s a quote:

First, in addition to the absence of evidence that trigger warnings have any impact on the average college campuses, there’s also solid evidence that many of the tropes that have taken hold about “coddled” or“microaggressed” or “oversensitive” or anti-free-speech college students are seriously overblown. In many cases, these ideas have been bandied about so gleefully and frequently and uncritically by conservatives that the terms themselves have lost all meaning….But: There have absolutely been recent instances in which campus outrage has snowballed out of hand, in which protesters have actually impinged on the ability for real debate to take place, and these episodes matter.

Funnily enough the article refers to the controversy at Yale as also being disproportional, which I also wrote about in a similar vein as this post.

Next, a safe space is a physical location for marginalized people (historically LGBT folks) to exist with allies without fear of marginalization/hate speech.  Examples are church basements for Christian youth groups, gay bars, and the U Chicago LGBTQ Safe Space program.  The U of C letter refers to “intellectual safe spaces” as what it’s against, and includes a semi-definition as spaces where “individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”  This is not a normal use of the term, and there again seems to be some confusion about what the phrase “safe space” means.  There’s a fantastic article on Vox that goes into what a safe space is and why it matters in depth:

You don’t have to explain to other black women why your hair is the way it is, she said, or what a certain word means, or countless other little cultural signifiers. “Everybody has a need to just be able to be themselves somewhere, without having to do that translation and without having to always be on guard to justify yourself.”

I liked this Vox Explainer article so much because it really delves into the reasons that people are against the idea of safe spaces.  To close this SUPER LONG blog post, here are the last three paragraphs from it:

Some people get upset because they don’t understand why they can’t be included in a certain group, or why their input on certain issues might not be welcome. A man might ask in good faith whether catcalls are really just “compliments” when women are trying to discuss their own experiences with street harassment, and he might be taken aback when those women get immediately upset or exasperated with him. To him, perhaps he was just asking an innocent question and trying to have an intellectual debate. But to the women, it’s pretty insulting to suggest that their life experiences are up for “debate” — plus they’ve heard remarks like these a hundred times, and nine times out of 10 it just derails the conversation, so they’re just sick of dealing with it.

The question of who belongs and who doesn’t, who is excluded and who isn’t, is a constant worry for most of us. But on top of the personal rejections that everyone faces in life, people in marginalized groups also have to face the feeling that society wasn’t really designed for them; that it considers them an afterthought at best. People in dominant cultural groups are used to rejection, but they’re probably not used to that kind of rejection. And they’re probably not used to being forced to pay attention to all the little social cues and codes that others pick up when trying to navigate a society that isn’t inherently made to fit them.

It’s not easy to deal with shame, hurt feelings, or fear during these kinds of cultural clashes. But particular spaces or identities are rarely the most productive things to blame for the strife. Inside or outside of safe spaces, the real problem is usually a failure of empathy, and the real solution is treating others with humility, respect, and compassion and being willing to learn from our own mistakes.

 

The non-academic job search (Part 1)

10 Aug

This may come as a surprise to you, but I’ve decided after much soul searching this year that I will not be applying for postdocs this fall and following the steps to success in mathademia.  Please do not take this as an indictment of academia (though I also feel that;  each of those words is a separate link about academia & motherhood), and I highly recommend postgraduate study in math if you’re interested in it (so does Evelyn Lamb on Slate!)

I have loved my time doing something I love on a flexible schedule which gave me lots of time to spend with my son, organize conferences, travel, blog, bake, exercise, and have the life I wanted.  It’s also been very difficult to have the highly unstructured environment, little oversight, and lack of regular collaboration.  Also very little money, but I married a person with an actual job so he can support the kid, and as a young 20-something I didn’t need much money (especially with math conferences covering travel and accommodation costs!)  So I love math, I love mathademia, but I don’t love teaching enough to do it full-time yet, and I don’t love research enough to want to move my family only to move them again 3 years later, and possibly 3 years after that again.  Hence I am starting my non-academic job search, and I thought y’all could join me on my journey.

When I first started toying with leaving academia, a friend of mine who also has a Ph.D. in math told me: the hardest thing about leaving academia is deciding to leave academia.  It’s been several months of pro/con lists, discussions with friends and family, and days of feeling sad and hopeless vs. days of feeling inspired.  You can’t help but feel like a failure when you make this decision, because all the exemplars of success that surround you are academics.  And that’s not even true for me; I try to know a range of people who do different things, but still in my day to day life and work it’s all professors etc.  Anyways, I got through this stage but it was rough.

Next I got some books!  Specifically, In Transition and What Color is Your Parachute? + Workbook.  I’d heard of Parachute, and I talked to a friend on the phone who used to be in consulting who said that everyone who left his company was given a copy of In Transition.  So I spent a few weeks working through these, which was mostly about soul-searching and there’s some practical advice in there about informational interviews.  In those weeks I also contacted career services at Yale (they have someone dedicated to alumni) and UT Austin and got some short and helpful advice.

I rejoined Amazon affiliates so I could put these pictures in this post.  Buy the books from links above, I get money!


After using the books and career people and narrowing down to a few fields that might interest me, I used LinkedIn and the internet to find companies in those fields in the locations I’m interested in (Austin, where we are now, and where our families are).  After a few days of searching, that got me a list of 50 or so companies in a file I called “first impressions”, which I then went through again and checked out all of their websites which took another several days.  I deleted all the ones I couldn’t imagine working for or which didn’t exist anymore, which brought me to a list of about 20 companies.

I figured once I started contacting people they’d google me, so I updated my website and made it pretty and fancy!  Then, using my CV as a starter and a template that one of the career counselors sent me, I wrote a resume targeting these fields.  Based on that, I updated my linkedin.  The website took me an afternoon several months ago, the resume took me two weeks.

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How many pictures of myself did I put on my website?  A lot!

In the meantime several more companies got added to my list: I’m on several email lists and one alum sent out a note that his company is hiring, I looked on vault.com which ranks consulting companies on lots of metrics, including “work-life balance” and “least amount of travel” so that added a few companies, and I added a few dream companies (AAAS) which are not where I want to live but why not explore them and figure out what makes them dreams, and what things I want in the job I end up getting?

So about two weeks ago I added another sheet for contacts to this growing excel file which still has the name “first impressions”, and I used LinkedIn to find people who work at and people who used to work at each of those companies who are in my 2nd degree networks, and I wrote down their names and the name of my connection to them who can introduce us.  I also used LinkedIn to find people who were alums of any of the schools I’ve been affiliated with.  Now I’m starting to do informational interviews with those people- I asked for half hour phone conversations, but after the first one last week I think 15 minutes would suffice.  To get introduced, I write an email to our mutual connection and include at the bottom of the email an introductory note to the person I want to connect to, so our mutual friend can just forward it instead of having to write a whole long thing.

What’s great about informational interviewing people who used to work somewhere is they have no skin in the game if I end up at that company.  They can tell me why they left!

If you couldn’t tell this has been a summer-long project that I started at the end of May (at least, that’s when I redid my website).  I didn’t start out the summer knowing any of these things, neither what the tasks were nor how to do them, but I talked to that former consulting friend for an hour in May and he made all of these helpful recommendations, and I talked to the Yale alum counselor for a half hour in June, and I met with the UT counselor in July who gave me concrete advice as well.

I’ll keep you updated every few months with the progress of this!

Productivity tips for solo workers

12 Jul

I just got back from a Dissertation Writing Retreat, put on by my undergraduate fellowship, Mellon Mays .  Twelve of us planned our days, talked goals and schedules, and tried out techniques for staying productive and keeping up our morale.  The first two days we were essentially locked in a room for four hours (two sessions of two hours each) and worked on our computers, using social pressure and a shared timer.  Then we weaned off to one session and then no sessions, with the expectation that we’d figure out how to use the time schedule ourselves.  The end of each day we had check-ins and discussed what worked and what didn’t.  So I thought I’d share with you some of the stuff I learned.

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#IlookLikeAProfessor #squadgoals (Faculty panel)

First, a few things I already knew:

  • Figure out where you can work.  When my partner worked from home we turned the guest bedroom into an office for him.  I’ve done parks, coffee shops, the office, and our home office and all were much more productive than the kitchen table, where I can see the dishes, the fridge (what’s for dinner tonight?!), the living room…
  • Write a task lisk for each day and focus only on those tasks.
  • Make sure to “have a life,” which in my case meant starting a baking and math blog.
  • Exercise!  Figure out some way to move your body.
  • Use SMART goals.  Specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.  I don’t really know what “attainable” means vs. “realistic” but maybe it balances out people with too low self confidence (at least it can be attainable) vs. people with too high self-confidence (remain realistic!).

years of grad school and those are the things I knew.  I’ve been in a rough space for the past few months, math and life-wise, so this writing retreat was the perfect detox/jump start for me.  Here are some things I learned!

  1. Break up goals into specific, manageable tasks.  I used to look at my planner post-it each day and see things like “work on paper X” and “read paper Y.”  On our first evening we listed our main goals for the week, and then took the top goal and split it into at least three specific tasks.  So my “organize paper” became 1) copy topic sentences (lemma/theorem statements), 2) skim paper and name techniques, 3) figure out which theorems use which techniques, 4) form flowchart, and 5) rearrange paragraphs so flowchart makes sense.  Then when I sat down the next morning I didn’t have “organize paper” to look at, but a really easy softball of a task to start my day and feel productive.
  2. Set out your tasks and goals the day before.  This has helped me SO MUCH.  I used to spend half an hour each morning reviewing the previous day and setting up what to do that day.  Here’s a picture of the Emergent Task Planner pages we were using. etp
  3. Try the POMODORO TECHNIQUE.    The idea is that you break up goals into tasks, and then set a timer and FOCUS on each task for 25 minutes (=one pomodoro), then take a five minute break.  You fill a little box for each pomodoro (=”pom”) next to your task that you took, and then you cross off the task when it’s done.  If your tasks are taking 4 or more poms, you’re not breaking up the tasks enough in step 1.  After four poms, you take a longer break (15 minutes).  DO NOT SKIP BREAKS.  The breaks let you work longer and feel more refreshed and ready- in my experience, if I skipped breaks then I’d do a pom or two less that day.  The timer is great!  I use a free app on my phone as the timer.  I also go one step further and put my computer on airplane mode for the poms when I don’t need the internet.  Speaking of which…
  4. Consider turning off the internet.  I was always getting stuck on a thing, and then getting frustrated, and then checking slate or gawker or national review or reason or twitter or facebook and reading an article or five before going back to the task at hand.  I’m pretty distraction-prone, so turning my computer to airplane mode and putting my phone away helped a lot during the retreat.  In regular life I’ve been setting computer to airplane mode and putting my phone on a shelf after setting the timer (I still need to pick up if daycare or nanny calls).
  5. Keep a master task list for the project/week/month.  We made an “activity inventory” of the larger goals we wanted to accomplish over the week.  Then at the end of each day once I had finished my tasks for the day and was looking to the next day, I’d refer to the activity inventory and cross off the major goals and see what was coming up to break into tasks for the next day.

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    Goals to finish this project, crossed off as I accomplished them.  Or, funnily, — if they stopped being necessary.

  6. Keep track of distractions.  The Pomodoro technique recommends putting an apostrophe in your list to show when distractions happen.  I did not do that, but I do make liberal use of the “notes” section at the bottom of the ETP sheet above, or a side notebook, just to sketch a few notes about ideas that cropped up.  Also, if I got hit by the math muse, I’d run with it and write it down as a new task with little time bubbles (I believe in staying flexible!)
  7. Various one-time techniques: pre-hindsight: think about a time you didn’t achieve a goal, and try to figure out what would have helped you achieve it.  Then try to implement those tools for success in future goals.  Put yourself first: spend the best part of the day (the time you’re most awake and aware) on the work that matters to you, and then deal with other peoples’ needs.  Take breaks: “You don’t realize you need a break until you’re fatigued, and by the time you’re fatigued it’s too late (to do more good work”-Shanna Benjamin, our amazing facilitator.

Good luck with all your work, blog readers!  I think this is also useful for non-solo workers, but it’s harder to keep track of because there will be other people and other schedules involved.  I did meet with a fellow grad student and we pom’d together, including a 25 minute conversation we had trying to figure something out.  Good luck to all of us!

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