Thursday, February 15, 2018

The curse of Ctrl-C-Ctrl-V

Student plagiarizes.

Student appeals to the committee on being reported, pleading "not guilty".

Student emails to tell me I have made a false accusation.

Student makes an appointment and calls my office.

Student starts the conversation by telling me that it is not plagiarism. 

Student tells me it was a formatting error.

Student tells me that other classmates read the paper and did not say that it is plagiarized, so it is not plagiarized.

Student tells me that English is not their mother tongue.

Student tells me that I should consider changing my opinion (It wasn't my "opinion," I had evidence of plagiarism that I submitted to the committee with my report).

Student tells me that they will see me at the hearing (like a court hearing in a university setting where people resolve their differences in front of a neutral committee).


If only the student had written in their own words instead of a blatant copy-paste, they'd have skipped all the drama and save me a bunch of time.



sunshine

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The art of saying “no”

I don't read through emails word-by-word, I skim through them unless they are really important or come from someone important. I get close to 150 emails a day from all kinds of people. Colleagues. University emails. Professional society emails. Urgent emails. Useless emails. Journal editors asking for reviews. Publishers trying to sell me their products that I will never buy. Survey requests. Scams. Phishing emails. Hapless students from abroad who tell me their GRE scores and ask where they should apply and whether they should study fisheries or pharmacokinetics (how am I supposed to know?). Random faculty from China self-inviting themselves as visiting scholars to my university and assuring me they would return the favor if I ever want to visit China. Unfortunate spouses who moved to the US allured by the promised greener pasture and after seeing only snowy pastures, email to ask me of their future prospects (Irony! Little do they know that I am still figuring out my future prospects in this country after all these years!). I skim emails because it is a necessary practice to save time. 

Acceptance emails/notifications are short and sweet. They start with the word, "Congratulations!" The message is delivered, loud and clear, without wasting my time. 

Rejection emails/notifications somehow become all about the person who rejected me. There are two paragraphs about how the selection process was daunting, challenging and how they had to skim through hundreds of great applications to select the best. The outcome is like a hidden gem, I am still on paragraph three and trying to understand what was the outcome of my application. Well, tell me you did not select me and move on. You do not have to make this email a sob saga about you. I have plenty of other things to do, other opportunities to apply for, and all I want to know is the outcome before I move on. I do not care how many applications you had to read. All I care about is I did not make the cut.

Effective communication is an art. Be objective, be succinct, and be precise. Tell me what you are trying to tell me in the first line. Don't make it about you. It is just an award, a paper, a grant, and not the end of the world.  

sunshine

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Why I often think of Portugal, but not Paris

Paris, or any over-hyped tourist destination for that matter, is expensive, crowded, and has often left me wondering, “But what was so great about this place?” Portugal is different. Granted, Paris is a city and Portugal is a country, but that is not the point. Portugal, despite its breathtaking beauty, azure seas and quaint alleys, is strangely a less noisy tourist place. I see more people traveling France, Switzerland and Amsterdam than Portugal (I admit, I have a biased sample, consisting mostly of people of Indian origin whom I know).

So what reminded me of Portugal today? Well, the fact that North America is in the throes of winter right now, and I have missed the sun. Every day, I am at least 3 kilo heavier, winter coat, layers of warm clothing, snow boots and all.

I was floored when I first started researching about Portugal and saw the pictures. Its sheer beauty mesmerized me. Coastal Portugal has some amazing views of the Atlantic. With the little fishing villages, the churches, the bell towers, the castles, the palaces and the winding streets, Portugal has history written all over it. The view of the bay from Lisbon is amazing. Summer is super hot (I have never been there in the winter). And if you haven’t seen the westernmost point of continental Europe, you must, absolutely! It happens to be located in Portugal.

Despite its beauty, Portugal is quite inexpensive (like Croatia, Greece, and other southern European countries). I love the challenge of traveling on a shoestring budget, living in hostels, walking or taking the public transport, and finding cheap eating options. Penurious traveling is a skill I picked up due to many years of being a poor graduate student. I am less likely to be splurging at a fancy restaurant, a glass of wine in hand. What penurious travel does (other than save you money) is connect you to the backpacker crowd, people who take time off their work, short-term or long-term, and travel all over the world. Such people make the most interesting conversations.

In Portugal, you will find wholesome meals for a couple of Euros. Public transportation within the city and train networks between cities is excellent. Buying a multiple day city pass takes you further along in terms of getting around and seeing the places of interest. The Oriente train station in Lisbon is beautiful! Within-city commute is very well-planned and easy to figure out. The bus and metro services in Lisbon is great. I took a train to Sintra at 4:30 am, and it was right on time. The trains are clean, comfortable, and very reliable. The yellow trams in Lisbon take you around the city and cover most of the touristy places. And the one-day or multiple-day pass allows you to take the bus, tram, or metro. Do ride the tram # 28.

The best thing about Portugal was, I could just take a map and venture out on my own. Unless you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, there is nothing unsafe. As a woman on my own, not once did I feel uncomfortable. The metro and trains ply until late hours and the touristy places are crowded. In comparison, parts of Italy had felt somewhat unsafe. Most people understand functional English in Portugal, unlike Sicily where I got around using sign language most of the time. Portugal is not Switzerland, New York, or Paris, which makes it all the more endearing. You can safely skip the hyped-destination travel crowd. Yash Chopra movies might have popularized Switzerland for the Indians, and the same goes for Paris or New York City, but I would rather skip the crowd at the Niagara Falls or the long queues for the elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Portugal felt more under-explored, local, and like home for me. Talking of elevators, do not miss the elevators, lifts, and funiculars that take you up and give you a panoramic view of Lisbon.

And if you are even remotely interested in photography, Portugal will never disappoint you. Portugal is vibrant, colorful, cosmopolitan, and yet rustic in a beautiful way. The banks of the Douro river in Porto is lined with colorful flags and quaint houses with balconies. You would see colorful clothes drying off in the sun, and winding streets with old houses lining the cityscape. You will love the orange-tiled rooftop houses, and the bright contrast it makes with the blueness of the oceans. You would love the bridges of Porto, the trams of Lisbon, the palaces of Sintra, and the colorful fisherman villages by the Atlantic. The city of Porto is a photographer’s delight, especially the part of the city by the riverfront, or the view of the city from the numerous bridges.

I write and take pictures to travel twice. Hopefully, Portugal will happen again.


sunshine

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Week 1: Unsubscribe

Digital decluttering has been foremost on my mind. I don’t know how dozens of stray websites with daily offers of stuff I do not need find their way to my email. Some, I had subscribed to in my past life, in a not-so-deliberate act of my attachment to material therapy. But others, I do not even know about. This month, I have actively taken time out to unsubscribe myself from all the email lists that I am no longer interested in. I do not want to start my day virtually sweeping clean my mailbox.

I don’t remember the last time I bought a book from Barnes & Noble, but they kept sending me offers. Amazon is notorious in sending me follow-up emails if I even so much as look for a hairpin on their website. Hostelworld and easyJet still keep sending me deals for Europe travel, although I have left Europe long back. I once took a cruise ship from Germany to Norway, and they still keep sending me deals in German (which makes it harder to find their “unsubscribe” button). I will never figure out how I got to be on the email list for Baby Gap, of all things. I had once actively subscribed to Seth Godin’s blogs, but I have outgrown that content. In my previous life (meaning, many years ago), I was subscribed to Bath & Body Works, but it is cheaper to buy things at full price than get sucked into their bottomless abyss of “buy-3-get-3-free” offers. Now, if I need to buy one, I just buy one, and not six of the same kind. Seattle Public Library still keeps sending me emails, although I have been gone from Seattle for 8 years now (completely my fault, I admit).

And then, there are newsletters from photo websites, offers to send people flowers in India (why on earth?), and travel deals to places I am never likely to visit, like Bora Bora. 

It may sound like a petty thing, but I do not want to start my day reading and deleting pointless emails. I have actively started unsubscribing to declutter. I no longer provide my email id for future offers every time I buy something at Macy’s. Even after weeks of decluttering, a stray offer email, just like a stray mosquito, will buzz every now and then until I swat it away. But overall, I am done waking up to soul-inspiring emails of sales and deals about things I do not need.

Have you uncluttered your mailbox lately? And what are you changing in your life in week one?


sunshine

Also read: 52 small changes

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Meeting Mr. Alejandro

"Mr. Alejandro? Where can I find you again Mr. Alejandro?"

The words reverberated in my head again and again as I was awash with a deep sense of sadness for not being able to say goodbye.

Mr. Alejandro is the tour guide I had met earlier that morning. I was on a day trip to Taxco, about 200 km away from Mexico City. I had just arrived for the first time in Mexico three days ago and learnt quickly that tipping your way around is not only recommended, but is also the right thing to do. That day, we had our driver, Marcus, and the person who had escorted us to Taxco, Hugo.

When we reached Taxco, Hugo placed our tour group in Mr. Alejandro's hands and disappeared.

Taxco is a silver mining city. They plan the trip so that tourists can have hours to shop for silver. I was a little interested in learning how silver is mined, but not interested in purchasing silver at all. I was done looking around in five minutes.

It had been more than 30 minutes and the fellow tourists were still inside the stores, happily buying away. Bored, I took my camera out and started walking around a block or two. That is when I saw Mr. Alejandro, an old and short man who could be easily passed off as being from India. He wore a brownish shirt tucked in his trousers. He had a lump in his back and walked with a leftward limp. Although not a native English speaker, he spoke English with authority. My grandfather had a close friend from Hazra who used to love visiting foreign countries, dabbing generous amount of Cuticura powder on his chest, and spoke like that.

He told me to check out the streets on the left, those that had a nicer view of the church. And thus, we started talking.


At first, Mr. Alejandro seemed just like any other guide, saying the best and claiming to show us the best. He told us a little bit about the city and promised to take us to a really nice restaurant with magnificent views. And he kept his promise. The food was average, but the views were great. Mexico is quite cheap and even if they took you to a restaurant that was a total rip-off, you would only end up paying maybe a few US dollars more. I was beginning to get an idea of how the tourism industry works here. It's just like in India, everyone has their "internal setting." Guides take you to a pre-decided restaurant they have some kind of a tie-up with. In return, the guides get free meals and drinks. The same way, they took you to certain pre-determined shops for retail therapy.

"This is the only road in the city made of marble," he showed us. "And the widest road in the city too," he added knowledgeably. He did take us to a few shops to look around. Tourists (both men and women) jumped into these shops like they had never gone shopping before. I have stopped buying things I cannot consume. Souvenir hunting was a waste of time for me. I was wondering how many shops he would take us to. I should have brought along a book to read.

I looked up the mountain and saw a statue of Christ, arms outstretched. It was a hot afternoon in December and we were on a pre-determined schedule of shopping and church-hopping. Hiking up the mountain to the Christ statue was not a part of the plan. But that is what I wanted to do.

"Mr. Alejandro, would it be possible to hike up the mountain all the way to Christ's statue?" I excitedly asked.

Mr. Alejandro didn't seem encouraging, and I knew why. It was not a part of the plan. He would rather the visitors shopped for silver and souvenirs and boosted the sales of these shops he had connections with. But he also knew that I was not interested in shopping. He had seen my bored face not too long ago.

"Do you really want to go? You'll have to stick to my plan. We will all walk up to the church. From there, I will try to find you a taxi driver I know personally. You pay him 200 pesos. He will take you up the mountain and wait for 20 minutes for you to look around. He will then bring you back to the main square by 4:30 pm so that you can get back to your group. Are you game?"

"Yes! Yes!" I said enthusiastically. Ideally, I would have wanted to hike up on foot, but we had to leave by 4:30 pm and there was no time. Taking one of those white, cute Volkswagen Beetles would have to do. I knew separating from the group had its risks. I spoke no Spanish and did not have a working phone. My return to Mexico City would be jeopardized if something went wrong. 200 pesos might be a lot, I have no idea, and I was in no position to bargain. Did Mr. Alejandro have a percentage share in that too? He said that he would get me a driver he personally knew. Was it for my safety or his profit too?

My brain chatter never ceased.

200 pesos is $10. Even if it turned out to be an utter waste of time and money and even if I was being ripped off, I was leaning towards climbing the mountain. I can't even buy a decent meal in the US for $10. How bad could it be?

When we got in front of the church, Mr. Alejandro said that he'd rather I go inside the church first since I was there anyway. There was a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe that I must see. Although I didn't care about churches, I did not want to say no. Inside, he gave us a background of the church. To me, it was the story of another rich man from Europe who had come to Mexico to kill and conquer and mark his territory through an ostentatious display of wealth. Sometimes, I can be quite apathetic to the things around me that other people find incredulous, bordering on being flippant.

True to his word, he escorted us out of the church, sent the other tourists on their way for more silver shopping, and started walking around the busy square looking for a taxi for me. Every taxi had a little ID number painted in red. He told me that it is very important both of us remember the number, in case it was past 4:30 pm and my group was not able to find me.

He flagged a few, but he did not know any of the drivers personally. I was beginning to get impatient and wondered again if this hunt for a known driver was solely for my safety, or for his percentage of tip too. I told him that he could just find me any taxi, that I would be fine. He seemed to consider it for a moment and that is what he did eventually. He flagged a taxi, gave the driver instructions in Spanish, and told me to be back by 4:30 pm, no matter what. He asked me to stay safe, helped open my door as I hopped in, and even closed it for me.

The fun started from there.

It was an amazing taxi ride. When I'd asked Mr. Alejandro why our big van cannot take me up, he told me that I will know soon. And I did. The narrow, serpentine roads that led up were heavily inclined. Roads out of a physics textbook, only these tiny Beetles could make it up there. For the next 20 minutes, I sat at a constant incline, my neck literally thrown backward, my hamstrings trying hard to balance. The roads were single-lane and every time cars came from the opposite direction, ours had to go on reverse gear to make space for them. It was one hell of a scary ride. And exciting too. Although I spoke no Spanish and the driver spoke no English, we chatted constantly. By the time I reached up the hill, I was dizzy with excitement. It was the best ride ever and I would have happily paid the 200 pesos just for the ride up.

The driver motioned that I spend 20 minutes after which, he would whistle loudly. That was my cue to come back. I was wondering if he would ask me for more money on my way back. I suddenly had this irrepressible urge to learn how to whistle back.

Like a child or a puppy without leash, I jumped out of the car and made my way to Christ's statue. The views from there were spectacular. The entire city I had walked around with Mr. Alejandro not too long ago was sprawled below me, nestled in the arms of the mountains that looked just like the Shenandoah mountains in Virginia. From the top, I could see the huge church (now a tiny figurine from the distance) and the square in front of it from which Mr. Alejandro got me the taxi. I took dozens of pictures from various angles, changing my lenses to take close ups and then distant shots. Mr. Alejandro would be thrilled to see these pictures. He told me that he grew up here, he must have visited this place many times. When I had asked him earlier to accompany me, Mr. Alejandro had politely declined, saying that he needed to stick around with the other tourists from our group. It was his job. The ride up was so thrilling and now, the views from the top were fantastic too. I am so glad I had broken off from the group, something I usually never do. I made it a point to give him a fat tip when I went back. Mr. Alejandro totally deserved it.

20 minutes later, my driver whistled loudly, a rather funny sight. I jumped up the stairs and hopped inside his taxi, but not before asking him to pose for a picture in front of his taxi, something he readily obliged. I think I liked my driver too despite my initial hesitation of being sent up a mountain with a stranger. He sported a mustache and for reasons not quite clear to me, I tend to trust men with mustaches more than men without one. Don't ask me why, biases and blind beliefs usually have no scientific, data-driven basis. My driver continued to talk on the way back too, stuff I understood nothing of. The ride downhill was even more scary and thrilling. He waved to a woman with a baby and later told me it was his wife and child. He asked me if I had babies. He motioned with his hand and told me he had four babies. "Cuatro," he said. Traveling up and down with a mustachioed man with four babies was probably not that unsafe after all. I might be all brave and adventurous, trying out new things in life, but it did cross my mind that the possibility of a man taking me hostage, forcing me inside a desolate building and tying me up was something that had a non-zero probability of occurring. So far, the driver hadn't shown any such signs. Excitedly, I continued to take more videos of my ride downhill, sitting once again slanted at a precarious angle and without a seat belt. Roller coasters are so passé, this was far more exciting.

When my mustachioed driver dropped me off, I was half-expecting him to demand more money. But he took his 200 pesos and drove off. I was a little surprised, I was expecting him to wait for Mr. Alejandro and give him his share. I was back at the main square where I started that morning. I could see Christ's statue when I craned my neck. I smiled at the statue, so glad for having made a trip all the way up there. I was dying to tell Mr. Alejandro all about it. And while I waited for the group, I took out 120 more pesos from my wallet and tucked it in my camera bag's pocket. This is the most I have considered tipping, but Mr. Alejandro totally deserves his tip.

The group was back within 10 minutes, happily holding bags of merchandise. Hugo had magically reappeared and was leading the group. I had not seen him since morning.

"Hugo! Where is Mr. Alejandro?" I asked excitedly. I had to quickly tell him about my trip up there, tip him and thank him before saying goodbye.

"Mr. Alejandro left," Hugo told me.

"What?"

Mr. Alejandro said goodbye to the group in front of the church after which, Hugo took over. This means I was not seeing Mr. Alejandro anymore. This also means Mr. Alejandro knew that he will not see me again when he got me that taxi and waved me goodbye. Why didn't he tell me? Why didn't he ask for a tip?

I boarded the van feeling strangely empty, no longer enthusiastic. I had so much fun in that taxi ride, I wish I could share it all with the person who made it possible. He had magically transformed a boring shopping trip to one of the most exciting trips I will always remember. Why did he disappear from the church?

I rode back the 3+ hour long ride in silence, wishing that I had a chance to say goodbye. As we left the outskirts of the city, I kept glancing back, taking in the views for the last time, the spectacular white-painted colonial houses by the side of the mountain, the serpentine roads and the white Beetle taxis, and up above everything, the statue of Christ standing with its arms outstretched, offering fantastic views of where I now was from that vantage point.

Mr. Alejandro from Taxco, I don't have a picture of you, and I only remember how you look from my memory now. I don't know how you would ever get to read this post. Maybe you will never. If you do, remember that there is a girl eagerly waiting to tell you all about her trip and show you the pictures. She owes you your tip. And a huge thanks. For she could not have asked for a better trip. Thank you!

sunshine

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Things I learned as a new faculty: The pixel and the picture

I used to give the brick and the wall analogy until the wall got a negative meaning in North America, and rightfully so. On being asked about one’s research focus, PhD students will usually talk about the paper they are currently working on. But that paper is like a pixel in the photograph, a brick in the wall. As a new faculty, I had to unlearn to focus on the pixel to be able to visualize the bigger picture, the entire photograph in terms of my research agenda. I had to find my unique scholarly voice. And that is what grant writing is about. Moving from paper writing to grant writing, one becomes less myopic about their research to be able to look at the larger implication. It took me a while to get used to seeing things this way, but this transformative thinking from the pixel to the picture was very empowering. Sure, one can always elaborate on the finer details, but as faculty, one also needs to work towards creating a brand. Think about a bunch of keywords in your area. Then think of a few names that come to mind when you think of those keywords. When I think of NPR, I think of Robert Siegel’s voice. When I think of nineties Bollywood, I think of Kumar Sanu’s voice. When I think of Indian cookery shows, I think of Sanjeev Kapoor. That is what branding is, creating a very unique niche so that your name is associated with that particular topic.

Now how does one learn to visualize the bigger picture? It comes with a lot of creative imagination. In faculty interviews, particularly in the US, there are different variants of a very common question: What are your short-term and long-term research goals? Where do you see your research going in the next one year, five years and ten years? Answering this is not easy if you are unprepared. It requires some deep introspection and you will find yourself put at a spot if you did not anticipate this question. I have extrapolated this question to my own life and wondered what life will look like in one, five, and ten years. Try imagining if you already haven’t, it is a very interesting exercise.


sunshine

Monday, February 05, 2018

What are you looking forward to today?

I had a dental surgery this morning where they implanted titanium screws in my gum. It is a part of routine dental procedure that has lasted me for more than a year now. Naturally, I was scared shitless. I have realized that I am my most insecure self when my health is suffering. From living alone to traveling alone, I start questioning everything. All my spunk and crazy enthusiasm for life goes out of the window, I just binge on negative self-talk.

Anyway, I survived the three pokes they made to find the vein on my right arm (the nurse even asked me if knew what arm they used last year, as if I would remember), the grogginess due to anesthesia, a couple of stitches and some bloodshed, as well as getting high on hydrocodone. I decided to stay home and rest for the day. I kept getting in and out of a semi-state of nausea and half-wakefulness all day. In the evening, I got to see the beautiful colors of the sky after sunset from my apartment, something that I do not get to see from office.

I also called grandma and told her that I would not be able to talk, so she should talk to me. She is quite a chatterbox, always high on the little joys of life, and had quite a bit to say. The thing about talking to family is that there is often a prescriptive syllabus of conversations they keep falling back on, not because it is useful, but because it is easy small talk. Have you cooked? What have you eaten? Is it still cold? Are you taking precautions while crossing the road? When are you visiting? We miss you. How will you manage things on your own? Indians will never learn to keep their environment clean (a broad generalization lacking data-based evidence). Rickshaw fares are going up. Vegetable prices are going up (anyone heard of the word “inflation”?)

I really do not care about such small, usually negative talk. A lot of things around us might be wrong, but if I only focused on the negatives and kept ranting about how cold it is in winter and how expensive healthcare is (I just shelled $3.2k for the dental procedure this morning even after good insurance coverage, you do the math now), I will never move forward in life. There is Chetan and there is Chitra. It is my choice to decide what I spend my time reading (I know the difference because I have read both before making up my mind). Although preferably, I would rather read Lahiri's short fiction. I am a sucker for short stories, in particular.

So I asked grandma a simple question-

Grandma, it is Tuesday morning in Kolkata. What are you looking forward to today?

Grandma was flustered. I am sure no one has asked her this question before. So I asked her to think again and repeated the question.

She had to come up with something since I would not let go. So she said,

“There is so much work to do. The domestic help will arrive soon. Your father will leave for office soon. The vegetables need to be chopped. Lot of work today.”

I knew she was dodging my question. So very patiently, I explained the question again. I asked that amid all her chores that she just described, what is one thing she is looking forward to today? And she again repeated about how at her age, life is monotonous and her knees hurt and she will die soon, so there is nothing to look forward to. So I told her that everyone of us will die, sooner or later, and she is not special. I told her that the response to my question could be anything, any small, but genuine thing. To which, she said that she will be happy when I visit her next.

I once again knew what she was doing. Putting the onus of her happiness on others (which is attachment and conditional, but not love). I told her that I have no plans of visiting, but she could take some time and think about my question. This time, she thought. And her answer warmed my heart.

She said that she is looking forward to the open doors today.

Kolkata is in the throes of winter, but the weather is slowly warming up. She is a balcony person, she loves standing at the balcony and watching people go around with their life. People headed to work, children headed to school, vegetable and fruit sellers going around in their rickety trolley rickshaws selling stuff. She said that given the winters, the balcony door has been closed and she has missed watching people. Today is the first day it has warmed up a bit, and after her chores, she is looking forward to an open balcony door, sunlight streaming in and she spending time in the balcony. It was endearing. And I think I had finally succeeded in my mission.

She asked me the same question next. I said that it was already evening for me, and I had a rough day at the doctor’s, but tomorrow, I am looking forward to staying home for a specific reason. My apartment gets a lot of sunlight on days when the sun shows up. So I am looking forward to seeing how the sun lights up my living room and kitchen in the morning and my bedroom in the evening. I no longer have a grand view of a fjord and cruise ships the way I did from my home in Germany, but I live in a very nice neighborhood with beautiful homes, tall trees, and I am looking forward to a day of sunshine at home (pun unintended).

I then asked her to write down one small thing that she would be looking forward to everyday in her diary. I don’t know if she would, but it would be a wonderful read if she does. I think I will do the same, not for social media and Facebook propaganda, but just for me.

The thing is, there is a lot of bad in the world. But there is also a lot of good in the world. What you focus on makes you who you are/become. Often, when you ask someone how they are, they will usually reply with a lot of whining, like “আর বলিসনা, গায়ে ব্যাথা, পায়ে ব্যাথা।“ (Literal translation: Don’t ask. Pain in the body. Pain in the legs). I do it too. I don’t think people do it consciously. They do it because the others do it. Many people view the ongoing of the world as an outsider, an onlooker in third person. However, we are not outsiders to the world, we are what makes up the world. We are the world.

Today, I am thankful that I am able to afford healthcare in the US (I know that many cannot), that I was able to rest and enjoy my home (which does not happen often), and that I was able to chat with my grandma at leisure (she is my only living grandparent now). What are you looking forward to today?


sunshine

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Small changes make big differences

I recently came across an ordinary book with an extraordinary message. In the book, 52 Small Changes: One Year to a Happier, Healthier You, author Brett Blumenthal talks about one small but mindful change we can incorporate into our lives every week. The list provided was nothing extraordinary, drink water, sleep more, set time aside as alone-time, eat your vegetables, and so on. Theoretically, we know most of these things, whether we practice it or not is a different story. However, I loved the underlying concept in the book. The reason most of us are not able to hold on to our new year resolutions beyond the first two weeks of January and, for example, end up gaining more weight and losing more confidence, is because the changes we make are erratic, and unsustainable. Extremism rarely works and one big change is a result of many smaller changes.

I want to do a “52 small changes” project (I will not call it a challenge) and incorporate changes based on what I want out of my life. And I will make my own list as I go along. I will also try to write about it once a week. Accountability to others (and self) make a difference, and I will love it if you participate too, make your own list of changes you incorporate every week, and tag me (or write a comment or email or use the “contact form” on the upper right hand side of the blog page) to let me know what you are doing. I will not hold a gun to my forehead or beat myself up if, for any reason, I am not able to follow my plans during a particular week (and I hope you do the same). Treating myself with kindness is the precursor to anything I do in life. Sounds like a plan?

What are my big five goals for the next five years? Gaining health (physical, mental, and spiritual). Obtaining tenure. Investing in a home. Obtaining permanent residence. I see that I have four, and not five long-term goals at the moment, which is even better. However, none of these can be achieved overnight. For gaining health, I have to watch what I eat and drink, how much I move myself, what I do with my time and how much drama I allow myself to engage in. For obtaining tenure, I have to publish papers, obtain grants, and at an even smaller level, understand academic writing and money management. For permanent residence, I have to publish as well, so the smaller steps for obtaining permanent residence and obtaining tenure have overlaps. For a house, I have to research about what is available, what do I want, and how can I save better. I can already see that the four bigger goals have provided me with a list of more than twenty medium-sized goals that will easily culminate into more than 52 smaller changes over the next year. So looks like I am all set. I already practice some of the smaller changes that matter to me, but I will share them on a weekly basis nevertheless. And my biggest commitment for this initiative would be to make at least one blog entry every week, talking about what small change I adopted and how I have been doing. I know that there are weeks when I will be traveling or working on deadlines, and I will not be hard on myself if I am not able to keep up. But I will try.

I wonder if the wheels in your brain are rolling too, and what small, sustainable changes you think you can incorporate in your life. I would love it if you participated and shared your list as well as experiences. Please feel free to share your thoughts and ideas. 


sunshine

Friday, February 02, 2018

Things I learned as faculty: Unconscious bias

As faculty, I have learned to be more cognizant of unconscious bias, how people view me and what’s going on around me. Sometimes, in a room full of people who do not know me, some assume that I am a student. This has happened at conferences and board meetings. In the same room, some people will talk to other faculty as faculty but ask me what year of my PhD program I am in.

It is tempting to get flattered and think that I look young, and hence the misunderstanding. However, this has nothing got to do with age. Many people are subconsciously primed to think of women and minorities as holding lower positions. White faculty, brown student. Male faculty, female student. Male doctor, female nurse. People are not evil but they just do not know any better.

If it was about age, they would assume I am young faculty, not an older student. I always use this as a teachable moment for my minority students. I sense those few seconds of discomfort when I calmly tell them that I am not a student. However, I do not take my position for granted.

For example, I never wear jeans and informal clothes to work. I am always in semi-formals or formals. I don’t care whether people think I am a student because those are their biases to deal with. However, I am immensely aware of the responsibility my position brings, not just for me, but for others who are training to be faculty. My colleague next door will wear denims, sports jacket and running shoes and no one will flip an eyelid. However, I cannot assume that I will be treated like a faculty if I wore the same kind of clothes. We do not live in an ideal world. We don’t get what we deserve. We get what we negotiate.


sunshine

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Things I learned as tenure-track faculty: Time is the new currency

When you are on tenure-track, time flies incredibly fast. It seems like yesterday that I started, and now, I am almost at the end of my second year. It has been an incredible few semesters of learning, failing, trying again, and succeeding, in an infinite loop. Being faculty is hard and being on tenure-track at a Research 01 institution, even more.

My most important learning is perhaps that time is the new currency. Although I had heard of “protected time,” it is only recently that I developed a full understanding and appreciation for the word. Although I have a 50% research position and my tenure and promotion will be primarily dependent on my research productivity, a hundred different things get in the way of me doing research. Committee meetings. Teaching. Advising. Keeping an eye on the students who have promised to do work for you but keep disappearing. Academic networking. IRB submissions. Accounting, budgeting and managing my research money. The constant buzz of emails. People randomly dropping by my office to chat. The list of interruptions is endless.

My best days are the ones when I can get to work and start doing research without interruption. But that’s utopia. Hence, I work on the weekends, because I am less likely to see another human being within a one-mile radius on the weekends. We are trained to see money as currency, but not time or energy. Time conservation as well as energy conservation are few of the many things I try to improve upon every day. As a PhD student, I spent a lot of time to earn some money. As a faculty, I spend a lot of money to earn some time. For example, I will spend research money to outsource some of my work to graduate students so that I can do the higher-level work. I outsource my interview transcribing to a transcription agency. I outsource my taxes to a tax consultant. Outsourcing my work frees up my time to focus on research.

Talking of time, I have only recently started being mindful of the difference between “urgent” and “important.” The urgent will camouflage as important and compete for time. For example, service committee meetings are urgent (which is why people will schedule them early). Signing paperwork every two weeks so that students can get paid is urgent. Completing IRB paperwork is urgent. Submitting my review for a potential PhD student’s application is urgent. Finishing a journal paper review is urgent. Preparing to teach a class every week is urgent. However, none of them are important (important being defined as anything that grants you tenure and/or helps you to live a healthy life). Going to the gym is important. Writing that grant is important. Submitting that research paper is important. Eating healthy is important. Sleeping and waking on time, irrespective of work, is important.

Talking of the different dimensions of time, it is also important to mention “structured time” and “unstructured time.” Structured time is everything that has been written down in your calendar. However, as a faculty, you will notice that most things written down in your calendar either constitute teaching or service, but not research. You make space for committee meetings in your calendar at the beginning of every semester. You make space for teaching courses and preparing for teaching. You make space for submitting your journal paper reviews on time. This is because a lot of these structured activities are where you are accountable to a group of people. You might sacrifice writing your paper over preparing for class, because you are accountable to your students to teach that class. However, as faculty, research is largely left to “unstructured time.” This is time we have not accounted for. As a result, unstructured time gives the wrong illusion that there is a lot of time. You think that you will be writing your manuscript for 20 hours in the weekend, and before you know, the weekend is gone and you have barely written a paragraph.

In summary, I have learned to be mindful of two concepts: urgent versus important and structured versus unstructured time. Getting invited to give a talk at Harvard University might seem exciting and ego boosting, but guess what? Even ten such talks every semester will not give you tenure. Yes, that talk you give at Harvard might indirectly help you by getting you connected with future collaborators and co-authors. But preparing for that talk should not occupy majority of your time. It might be urgent, but for a pre-tenure faculty, it is probably not important.

In any given day, I try to see whether each of my activity counts for research or non-research (teaching and service). What did I do today? I checked emails in the morning (not research). I replied to emails and scheduled some meetings (not research). I took a bus for an inter-campus visit (not research). I observed a class from 5-8 pm (not research). I had dinner with an old friend and colleague (not research). I booked my flight tickets for an upcoming conference and optimized my spending by getting a Sunday night flight back home instead of a Monday morning flight (flight research is definitely not research). I am writing this reflection post (not research). At the end of the day, I have a false sense of satisfaction that I have worked a lot. However, I haven’t done any research.

Moving on to a different kind of time, the need for downtime and quiet time has never been more important. A lot of the “doing” aspect of my job is based on “thinking.” It might sound odd, but I try to build some protected time in my daily routine just to think without distraction. This is the time without the distractions of popping emails, phone calls, Whatsapp messages, or looking for houses on Zillow. I usually make time to think when I am on the bus or walking back home. I know people who keep 2-3 hours of dedicated thinking time every day.  Those are some of the more successful people in the department. Also sleep time has never been more important. Because if I am not well-rested, I will be useless and non-functional the next day. A good night’s uninterrupted sleep is something to be thankful for. Naturally, if I have the luxury of some free time, I will disengage from the drama around me to either think or sleep. Being on tenure-track has helped me rethink my time as a finite, non-renewable and indispensable resource.


sunshine

Monday, January 29, 2018

Teach-Me-Not

Graduate-level students do not follow basic directions, write 8 pages when asked to write a 15-page paper, cite popular websites instead of peer-reviewed research papers (or do not cite at all), write twisted sentences like "Of the previously mentioned topics, the latter of the five has by far the most implication ......" and on being graded accordingly, write me emails like, "Professor, I am really disappointed with your grading." (Technically, they are addressing me incorrectly too, but I'll let that pass. I am doctor, not professor, not yet).

Many native English speakers struggle with basic grammar and punctuation, messing their commas and apostrophes, using colloquial language as if they were chatting with their buddies, using words like "cool" in an academic paper and writing "student's" instead of "students" repeatedly. It makes me think, "You only had to learn one language, and you messed that up too?" I won’t even talk about how bad some of their handwriting is. They most likely haven’t done a single day of cursive writing practice.

And for those who got a zero on their assignment for plagiarizing (I used a plagiarism tracker software to show them objective evidence of their plagiarism too), they write me emails like, "I am both shocked and appalled at your plagiarism allegations" and "I am offended at the language used in your email by saying that I plagiarized. This leaves no room for error on your part." Error on my part?

And then, a student wrote half the minimum required length for a final paper, and when graded accordingly, wrote me an aggressive email about how the student was extremely disappointed with my grading (My grading? Not their own writing, or the lack of it?). The student also played the "I am an international student, I was not able to follow directions" card. Understanding how students push your buttons has been a learning experience. I wrote an objective reply, addressing all the concerns with a compassionate stance, letting them know that I understand it is hurtful to get a low grade. However, I could not resist asking one question:

"Can you explain what aspect of you being international contributed to you not following directions or not asking me for clarification?" When a British talks about not following directions written in English, I am not sure what language I should use to give direction.  

I don’t know if they do this with everyone, or just me.

Teaching graduate-level classes here has given me a first-hand picture of what entitlement looks like. I wonder how I can break this pattern and encourage the students to learn from feedback rather than challenge my grading.


There is an extreme end in India where many teachers are treated like gods. And here, when students do not get the grades they expected (their expectations being asynchronous with reality), students will not think twice before treating you like you don’t know your shit. If a few points less (because of their own fault) disappoints them so much, I wonder how they will handle the stress due to constant rejections that is so characteristic of life in academia. The bigger question here is: Is our education merely training us to ace standardized tests like robots, or is it teaching us real life skills, like handling rejections and disappointments in life?


sunshine