Tag Archives: academia

Life is Good

I’ve got two important anniversaries coming up: The 5-year anniversary of our daughter’s death, and the 2-year anniversary of my father’s death.  Early September just doesn’t have a great track record for me.

But even though I’m very aware of the anniversaries… life is good.  Not only good.  Life is amazing right now.  I think I’m now removed enough from having lost my three pregnancies that their main impact on my everyday life is to make me grateful for the two amazing sons I do have.  I’m sure everyone is grateful for their children.  But the last five years have taught me so viscerally about how fragile life is that I do think I soak up the moments with my two babies in a way that I would not have otherwise.  My relationship with my father was so fraught and complicated, but now that he’s gone, its main impact is to make me appreciate what an amazing father my husband is — he is the father to my children that I never had, and his father, my father-in-law, is the grandfather that my father could never have been to my children.  Having them as part of my family heals me in a way that I didn’t know I needed.

Yesterday was a perfectly ordinary — but somehow remarkably perfect — day.  When I woke up my older son, I snuggled with him in bed and told him “I love you more than chocolate,” and as he was waking up he said, “I love you more than chocolate AND frosting AND sprinkles!”  Then I went to work, where there was an internet outage, so I spent the morning playing with a new digital planetarium that my department acquired last year — this fall I’m teaching a course that involves teaching students to use the planetarium to give presentations to elementary school children.  And I was just thinking, “How cool is my job?!  My work for the day is to play with this amazing planetarium!”  Then I picked up the baby from daycare — it was hotter than heck, so when we got home I drew a cool bath and just let him splash around.  Let me tell you, there is no better way to appreciate a deliciously chubby 8-month-old than to watch him play naked in a little baby tub and splash and giggle.  I read to him for a while, put him down for his nap, folded laundry, loaded and started the dishwasher, whipped up some banana bread to bake, and sat down to do some writing to help my masters student turn his thesis into a published paper.  When the baby woke up after a 2-hour nap, I nursed him and we went to pick up the big kid from preschool.  After preschool, I played with both kids on the floor, building with Duplos, and there wasn’t even any squabbling over pieces.  Then we headed over to a friend’s house for dinner, banana bread in hand, and the kids were mostly well behaved and I even got to have a somewhat uninterrupted conversation with my friend, the math professor.  Home, snuggles, bedtime, packing lunches for the next day, and doing a crossword puzzle in bed with my husband, and we turned out the lights.  Perfect.

I am so aware of how temporary all of this is.  The baby is growing at an alarming rate.  Soon he won’t be a baby anymore.  Someday, my kids will be out of the house.  Someday, life will be over.  I just feel so fortunate every day to have the family that we have.  To have the job that I have.  To be the parent and professor that I wanted to be.  I think the last time I felt this content and happy and excited for the future was the summer before I left for college. I remember that beautiful glow, appreciating everything I had and eagerly anticipating everything to come, and it’s the same as the feeling I’ve had this summer as the baby has been turning into a little person and as the reality of tenure has sunk in.  I know this won’t last — nothing this perfect ever does — but for now, I’m soaking it up.

The one thing that makes me sad and wistful is that… I want another baby, and my husband doesn’t.  I think I’m OK with that.  I recognize that more children means more divided attention and time, and I want to spend as much time as I can with my two existing children.  I think I’m more at home with the chaos of dealing with small children than my husband is — it stresses him out more than it stresses me out, and I don’t want to risk his mental health or our relationship by adding more stress than he can handle.  At the same time, when we talk about why he doesn’t want another baby, for him it mostly boils down to immediate things.  He says maybe if his parents lived closer and could help, and maybe if we didn’t have a dog, but he’s just feeling like he’s starting to get enough time back for work and exercise and he’s not ready to give that up again.  Which I get, but I’m also thinking 10 and 20 years down the road, when the kids will be in school and what our family will look like in the long run.  We both come from small families, and I worry that my kids will feel alone with no cousins and only one aunt — they’re basically it for their generation.  Plus, I admit that my current baby is so wonderful and perfect that it’s hard for me to accept that this is the last baby.  And I still haven’t quite given up on my dream of having a daughter, although I’d also be happy with another son.  And when I consider my husband’s reasons, what I hear underneath it is that he could use more support.  And I think… I could take on more of his responsibilities around the house (we split things pretty much 50/50 now), and we are also fortunate enough to be able to hire out some of the work, like dog-walking or cleaning or cooking (we tried hiring someone to clean and cook a few months before L was born, but it didn’t work out particularly well so we stopped when my husband’s parents came for the month of December).  I think this decision is a “two yeses, one no” case, so I will ultimately defer to my husband’s wishes — I just can’t imagine pressing such an important life change onto someone else.  When I asked him how sure he was recently — like, should I start giving away the baby clothes, or should we revisit in 6 months — he said he’s pretty sure, but we can revisit in 6 months.  We obviously can’t wait forever — I’m 36 now, and given our history it seems unlikely that the process would be smooth, and biology might just decide “no” for us.  So I’m waiting to bring it up again until our little one is a little bigger, and not holding out much hope, but there is a little spark of hope there.

And that’s the full update.  I don’t know if I’ll keep updating the blog very much beyond this point, especially if we don’t have another baby.  But maybe I’ll check in every once in a while — I do still read all the blogs that I’ve followed over the years and love to read the occasional updates there.  But the immediacy of needing a place to write out my experiences has mostly passed, I think, and more recently it’s been a way to maintain the wonderful relationships that have sustained me through some of the worst experiences of my life.  So thank you to anyone still reading.  I’m sending my love to you all.

Tenure

Well, it’s official! I somehow managed to miss not one but TWO calls from the university president to my cell phone this weekend, though as a result I now have the call recorded on voicemail and can listen to it on repeat.  I got the call in front of my husband and kids and did a wild happy dance while I was listening to it, so of course my three-year-old asked for it over and over again that night: “Mama, I want to listen to when you got tenure again.” (My heart, it melts!)

We celebrated at a local Italian bakery.  S had cannolis for the first time at his friend I’s birthday party at daycare this week, and apparently cried when he couldn’t have seconds.  I gave him the choice between ice cream and cannolis, and he chose cannolis, but then once we got there wound up more interested in the fruit cake and chocolate mousse.  What could I say… eat your heart out, kiddo!  Maybe we’ll do this again if I ever get promoted to full professor. 🙂 Here’s the photographic evidence:

IMG_3690.jpg

Friends, SO MUCH LIFE has happened on the tenure track. In case you’ve missed the tally along the line, here’s the cliffs notes version of what didn’t go into my tenure packet…

Year 1: Adopt a dog! Get married!
Year 2: Start infertility testing. Last grandparent dies. Get pregnant! Buy a house! Baby girl dies in the middle of the second trimester.
Year 3: Lots of infertility/loss testing/treatment. Get pregnant again! 
Year 4: Baby boy S is born!
Year 5: Start trying for #2. Miscarriage. Father dies suddenly. Miscarriage. Mother has major surgery #1. Start recurrent loss testing.
Year 6: Pregnancy #5. Mother has major surgery #2. Baby boy L is born!
Year 7: Somehow… tenure!!!

It’s been quite a ride, and since I’ve been busy thanking everyone who helped me along the way this week, I wanted to make sure to give you all a big, giant THANK YOU.  As I look back down that list, I would definitely not have made it through years 3-6 without this outlet.  I am so grateful to those of you who have been with me, cheering me on, for part or all of this journey.  It’s been a wild ride, but I couldn’t be more grateful to be where I am now, and to have met such amazing people along the way.

The End of an Era

Academia post alert!

I’m the faculty advisor for our campus Women in Science group.  The way the group functions (which I inherited) is that we maintain a vast email list, but a “steering committee” of about half a dozen students does most of the work of planning and executing activities for the group.  I interact almost exclusively with the steering committee, though I occasionally interact with a random assortment of members who come to the various events.

I arrived in my current job in January 2013, and took over as advisor for the WIS group in the fall of 2014.  That same year (which was also the year our daughter died), a quiet Jewish second-year math grad student named M joined the steering committee.  The following year, a black freshman biology major named J with roots in West Virginia and Iowa joined the steering committee.  The year after that, K, a sophomore from the Midwest with deep religious conviction who had blasted onto the campus leadership and organizing community scene the previous year joined the steering committee.

Today was my last steering committee meeting with all three of them in the room.  I cried.  They did too.

I have had so many special moments with these amazing women over the years, and my relationship with each is so very different.

M has been a late bloomer throughout her time in academia, so she is almost my age.  I have watched her struggle with physical and mental health, her own doubts, and the difficulties that plague any PhD student as projects stall or dead-end and writing becomes overwhelming.  I’ve watched her stress about teaching her first courses.  I’ve watched her blooming relationship with a visiting professor who then moved away, and her subsequent (successful!) efforts to maintain their relationship long-distance.  I’ve also watched her meticulously consider every aspect of each event that we’ve planned, catching problems before they happen, and often being more thoughtful than I am about the impact of our choices.  She’s the kind of person who will freeze up when asked to address a crowded room, but who thrives as the force behind the scenes.  She sees what needs to be done, and does it.  She is kind and loving and works to make everyone feel welcome.  She spots the tough problems and then solves them, like a true mathematician.  She will defend her PhD thesis on Thursday, and I will be there to cheer her on.

J arrived on campus freshman year with no idea what it takes to succeed in college, but a huge store of drive and persistence and curiosity.  I don’t know what made her want to join the steering committee, and to be honest, when she did join, I worried that we had made a mistake in selecting her.  The first year, I had to be on top of any event that she was placed in charge of, because she had no idea how to organize or lead.  Then, something clicked.  I will never forget when we organized a screening of Hidden Figures and J put together a panel on women of color in STEM after the screening.  She prepared an introductory speech and questions for the panelist.  There were probably 100 people in attendance.  She had never led a big event like this before.  I went over her speech with her ahead of time, and I remember her hands shaking as she clutched the paper and walked to the podium.  Her voice shook at first, then gained conviction.  She nailed it.  The event was a smashing success.  After that, she seemed to grow into her leadership role and these past two years has been a powerhouse.  At the campus leadership awards ceremony this weekend, she accepted awards on behalf of three organizations (out of 11 awards given!).  One of those awards was for our WIS group, and we wouldn’t have won it if J hadn’t had the idea that we should nominate ourselves — and then drafted the nomination herself.  Next year she is off to nursing school, and her patients are going to be so incredibly fortunate to have her in their corner.

K’s reputation was already well established on campus when she joined the steering committee.  She won a freshman leadership award, was a prominent face within the STEM community on campus, and was already involved in a wide array of student groups.  Her application to the steering committee minutely dissected our mission statement, explicitly pointing to strengths and weaknesses of our current slate of activities and offering a plethora of brilliant ideas to strengthen our organization.  The only objection to adding her to the group (raised by M, I think!) was a worry that she might be overcommitted and not have enough time to really contribute to the group.  When she joined the committee, it felt like she single-handedly raised the profile of our group, and instantaneously connected us to the other active and relevant groups of which she was a part.  She is brilliant at organizing and leadership.  When we had a budget overrun, she suggested ways to invest the leftovers in assets that the group could carry over from one year to the next.  She always keeps an eye on our mission and has helped to guide the group in new directions and into new collaborations.  She was set to graduate in three years.  And then, she hit a wall.  She took a leave of absence for medical reasons, related to mental health.  She was open about what happened to her, and that she was hospitalized and would be on leave.  J kept in touch, said she was having a hard time.  We sent notes of support, but tried not to bother her.  We didn’t know if she’d come back.  But she did — she just appeared one day at a meeting, and we were thrilled.  Then she took my course on STEM equity and inclusion, and kept working towards the goals of making our community a more welcoming and equitable place.  This year she won the senior class leadership award, and I couldn’t have been prouder at how far she’s come, and how she worked to come back from her significant setback.  She is a paragon of strength, a gifted scientist, and a gift to our community.  She is off to work as a researcher in a big R1 lab next year, and I can’t wait to see where her abilities take her next.

This particular group of graduating students feels so special to me.  They are each remarkable, in such different ways.  The future is bright for our group.  We have amazing freshman, sophomore, and junior members remaining.  Thanking the students for their service and saying goodbye to them today made me appreciate my work so much.  I get to interact with such amazing people at such a transformative juncture of their lives.  I get to watch and encourage their growth.  It’s the blessing and the curse of being liberal arts college faculty: I have a constant rotating cast of incredible students with whom I form deep relationships.  I get to be part of their growth at a critical time in their lives, in a very meaningful way.  But I only get them for a few years — then I have to say goodbye.  Sometimes they reappear, but never for long.  It’s a microcosm of life, I suppose.  A reminder that everyone in my life — my children, my husband, my mother, my friends — are all on temporary loan from the Universe, and that beginnings and endings are part of the human condition.  I love them while I can, I do my best to help them on their way, and I wish them well as they move on.

Tenure/Baby Update

This is a big month for tenure and baby!

Tenure first: the university-level committee has now had two meetings about my tenure case, one on its own and one where they brought in my department to discuss any questions they have with them.  That latter meeting took place on Friday.  Afterwards, my chair sent me a formal, uninformative email basically telling me that the meeting had taken place but that they couldn’t officially vote because one of the committee members couldn’t be at the meeting, but that everything was recorded for the absent committee member and we should find out the outcome after March break.  However, after that I got an email from my awesome faculty mentor — she was actually elected to the university-level committee (for the third time) this year, and while she has had to recuse herself from voting on my case because of her role as mentor, she is present for all the meetings.  In her email, she congratulated me for making it past the university-level committee!  I replied to her and was basically like, “Um, thanks… but did I?” and then she was all like, “Oh, oops, I guess they won’t officially tell you the vote until they can record the absent member’s vote, but um, basically, yeah.”  So, thanks to my faculty mentor spilling the beans, I now know that the vote from the present members was very positive (which my chair confirmed when I mentioned it to him today).  So, unofficial yay!!!  As I mentioned in my last post, this is basically the last major hurdle — if both my department and the university-level committee vote favorably, then the odds of my case getting overturned by the university president or board of trustees are astronomically low.  I still won’t get the final, official, irrevocable decision until sometime around Memorial Day, but I’m breathing a sight of relief to know that nothing weird is happening at the level of the university committee.

Baby: He is four months old!  The transformation from three months to four months is just phenomenal.  He’s like a different baby — so interactive, so giggly, so much more aware, and just clearly soaking up so much about the world.  I remember this phase from when S was little — it’s the phase where they still can’t do much, but they are so curious and get bored so easily that we basically hop around the house to different “stations” to keep him from getting fussy: the play mat in his room, the bouncy chair while I cook in the kitchen, a blanket on the living room floor, sitting up in the boppy while I fold laundry in our bedroom, etc.  He is also starting to tolerate the car better, and loves to go on outings (especially now that he can stay awake for longer, and now that I can wear him facing out).  We go to the university for various baby-friendly events, we’ve gone to the grocery store, and shopping for clothes for me and the kids (two of my old pairs of pants gave out spectacularly in the same week, which left me with exactly one pair of non-dress pants that sort of fit and didn’t have holes in it).  We haven’t been able to do much walking outdoors because it’s been cold and snowy, but the forecast is nice for this week so I’m hopeful.  I’ve also mostly mastered handling both kids after picking up S from daycare (not really any trick to it — honestly it’s just easier as L gets bigger).  It’s so much fun to take the kids to the local children’s museum or the library together at the end of the day, and mostly S has been really well behaved when he knows I have to take care of L too.

That said, everything changes next week, when L starts daycare!  It’s such a bittersweet transition.  On the one hand, I’m very, very ready to get back to using my brain to think about physics again and to have multiple-hour stretches in which to concentrate on a task.  On the other hand, I will miss the special time with my sweet and amazing little baby, and I find it so hard to think of him getting overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the busy daycare environment.  Fortunately, we’ve worked out a plan to keep him in half-day daycare until the fall semester.  For the six weeks that I am teaching this spring, we’ll shuffle our schedules so that I’ll pick him up M/W/F afternoons, and my husband will pick him up T/Th afternoons (which is when I teach).  Then in the summer, I’ll just work half days. I worked half-days all summer when S was a baby, and I LOVED it.  I was super-productive in my 4.5-hours of daycare time, and then I still got to spend most of the day with S.  I am really looking forward to doing the same with L this summer.  I feel so fortunate to have the flexibility to arrange my schedule this way — I’m basically getting a Canadian or Nordic-style parental leave despite being in the US.  My babies are only babies once, and the closeness with them at this age is so intense and so important, and I am grateful that I’m able to devote so much time and energy to my baby while also keeping up with the career that I love (and that I know will sustain me as they grow and need less and less of my time).

Basically, I’m on cloud nine these days.  Even though there are difficult moments during the days (and nights!!!), overall I am just so appreciative of everything that I have in my life right now: a wonderful husband who shares all the good and bad parts of parenting, a great job to come back to very soon, and above all these two wonderful tiny humans with whom I am sharing the most remarkable relationships of my life.  I think I’ve mentioned it before, but I am just enjoying L’s babyhood so much more than I did with S, mostly because my anxiety level is so much lower.  When little old ladies at the grocery store tell me to savor every moment, I can honestly smile back at them and tell them that I do.  (I mean, clearly not every moment, but most of them!)  It’s been a long road to get here, and I mourn the little lives that I never got to know, especially the daughter that I didn’t get to raise, but I am above all grateful for everything that I have — particularly S and L.  What amazing little humans, and what a wonderful family we have.

One big step closer to tenure

Guess what?  My department unanimously voted in favor of my tenure case today.  Hooray!!!

To back up a bit, there are four steps to tenure at my university: the department recommendation, an “advisory” committee of faculty from across the university, the university president, and the board of trustees.  In practice, the department and the university committee are the two major hurdles: if you have positive recommendations at both of those levels, it is extremely unlikely (though not impossible) that you’d be denied at the president/board level.  It makes sense — after all, your department presumably contains the people on campus who know the most about your research and how to evaluate it, while the other faculty are the ones who can look at the big picture of your research, teaching, and service within the broader context of how the university functions, and keep an eye on any shenanigans that your department might be undergoing.

I knew that my department had to make its decision and give its recommendation to the university-level committee by February 15, but I didn’t know when they were going to make the actual vote until this morning.  Since I’m still on parental leave, I haven’t been around the department much (I’m currently making trips to campus about twice a week for a couple hours at a time to meet with my thesis students, and that’s about it).  This morning I drove to campus to walk our dog while pushing baby L in the stroller (campus is only 3 mi from our house, and it’s a nice place to walk with actual sidewalks, unlike the area around our house which is on a busy road).  As I was loading baby, dog, and stroller back into the car at the end of our walk, my department chair walked out to the parking lot, offered to hold the dog’s leash while I juggled baby and stroller, and nonchalantly told me, “Oh, by the way, the department will be meeting to discuss and vote on your tenure case this afternoon.  Is it OK if I send you an email about it afterwards?”  I was like, “Um, yes, please don’t keep me in suspense!”  Then he cooed at the baby and the baby gave him a chubby-cheeked grin that was totally adorable (good job buttering up the chair, baby!).

I mostly managed to keep my mind off of it for the rest of the day — childcare is a great distraction.  I picked up S from daycare at 4, and took both kids to our local children’s museum, which was lovely (L fell asleep in the baby carrier on my chest, leaving me free to engage with S).  But as soon as my husband finished working and my kid-juggling responsibilities eased up, I was glued to my phone waiting for the email, which came in around 6:30pm.  It was short, just informing me that the department had voted 3-0-0 in favor of my case, saying congratulations, and reminding me that the university committee was the next step.  Phew!!!  I immediately decided to take the big kid out for ice cream to celebrate while my husband put the baby down for his last nap of the day (and yes, we brought ice cream home for my husband).  I texted my mom and three friends to let them know the news, and enjoyed the congratulations rolling in.  It sounds like the celebration will drag out a bit, since one friend offered to bring dessert by this weekend to help celebrate, and another wants to celebrate next weekend — since my birthday falls in the middle of the two weekends, I find this a most desirable state of affairs!

So, that’s the news!  As I’ve mentioned before, tenure has been this big heavy weight hanging over my head, and it’s such a relief to have successfully cleared the first hurdle.  Please send good vibes to the university tenure committee, which will meet to evaluate my case sometime in the next couple of months!

Tenure/Pregnancy update: End-of-summer edition

30 weeks pregnant and all was well at our monthly ultrasound this week.  Little guy is bopping around in there, currently lying sideways across my belly.  My husband and I have settled on a default name (unless we come up with something we like better by the time he is born) and are setting up the nursery.  I don’t remember at what point we did all this with S, but I think it was later.  I do remember that this was the point in my pregnancy with S at which our dear friends offered to throw us a shower, and I broke down in tears and just couldn’t handle the idea of planning for a living baby (the upshot was that we agreed on a “sip-and-see” a few months after S was born, which was a lovely compromise).  Some days I still can’t handle the idea of planning for another living baby (how lucky can we possibly hope to be???), and some days that’s all I can think about.  I still feel plenty of pregnancy impostor syndrome — like, this pregnancy isn’t actually going to last, there’s not actually going to be a new baby, it could all come crashing down at any moment.  But I’m at least able to act more normal this time around, mostly not responding weirdly to people’s innocent inquiries about whether this is our first (standard answer: “No.  We have a 2.5-year-old at home”) or jibes about how we’ll have our hands full with two boys (standard answer: “I sure hope so!”).

On the tenure side, I submitted my materials to my department today!  Hooray!  Now comes a long, long wait.  If I’m lucky, I’ll have a final answer by May 2019, and if I’m not lucky, I’ll have a final answer by December 2019.  The big steps in the process are:

  • This fall the department solicits letters from experts in my field around the country/world who can comment on my research portfolio.  This process typically takes a couple of months, as I understand — it happens in two stages, the first of which involves sending letters asking people if they will agree to write letters, and the second of which involves sending letters asking them to actually write the letters and then waiting for the responses.
  • Hopefully by the end of fall, but possibly later if there are delays, my department will have collected all of the external letters and will meet to go over all of my materials and vote on my case.
  • After my department has made its recommendation, presumably sometime in the spring, my case will go to a university-wide faculty committee for evaluation.  This committee currently includes members from the departments of English, Music, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Economics, Sociology, Chemistry, and Biology — there’s also one from Earth and Environmental Sciences, but she can’t vote on my case (unfortunately, since she’s the most qualified to evaluate it) because she’s officially my faculty mentor.  I go to the end of the line for the university-wide committee this year, since most faculty start at the university in the fall, but I started in the spring, so I’m on a one-semester-late review schedule.  This is the main reason for uncertainty in when I’ll get an answer about my tenure case — they will review my case in the spring if they have time, but if they are overwhelmed with fall cases they aren’t obligated to review it until next fall semester.
  • After the university-wide committee votes on my case (if the vote is positive), it goes to the Board of Trustees, and then the university president.  If I’ve gotten positive reviews at each stage up until this point, it’s usually a rubber stamp at the upper levels, but there was a case in recent memory that was positive at the department and university level but was overturned by the president, so there’s always the possibility that something weird will happen.  Since the Board of Trustees meets only a few times per year, this is another potential source of delay, depending on when the university-wide committee reviews my case.

After all of this, I’ll get a yes or no answer: either yes, I can keep my job essentially forever (barring unlikely circumstances like a major failure to meet my duties or major reorganization of the academic structure like eliminating my department), or no, I’m fired and I have to go look for another job.

It’s a long time to be in limbo, and many faculty find the uncertainty torturous.  My goal is just to try to relax and let the process play itself out, and allow myself to be distracted by the hopeful new addition to our family in November.  It’s the sort of setup that could either be really great (because I’ll be so busy with a new baby that I won’t have time to fret about tenure) or really awful (because being home with a new baby is psychologically challenging and so is waiting for news about your tenure case).

But either way, both of these big projects are looking like they’re in good shape at the moment, so I have to focus on that.  And now that I’ve turned in my materials, they have something else in common too: there’s essentially nothing I can do to change the outcome of either at this point.  The work I’m submitting for tenure has been done and documented, and this baby is baking away and the only thing I can do is to take care of myself and wait to see what happens.  I should avoid doing stupid things, like starting a feud in my department or suddenly becoming a binge drinker, but otherwise I have to accept that I have little to no control over the outcomes of either my pregnancy or my tenure case at this point.  And that’s hard for someone who likes to plan and act!  But if nothing else, my experience with pregnancy loss and infertility have given me plenty of practice at waiting, accepting lack of control, and dealing with difficult outcomes.  So, I’m pretty sure that whatever happens, we’ll make it through.

Baby and Tenure Update

Baby and tenure packet are both cooking along, so I thought I’d post a brief update.

Today I’m 28w pregnant and therefore officially in the third trimester.  While I do feel much more relaxed with this pregnancy, I had my first significant baby freak-out earlier this week — I had just been feeling off, and woke up with a sort of painful burning in my lower abdomen and then had two bouts of super-intense sharp pain over about an hour in the morning that freaked me out and sent me running to my OB worried about a repeat abruption.  She very calmly told me she didn’t think I was having an abruption, and that it sounded more like something GI-related, but if it would reassure me they’d check on ultrasound, which they did (just a quick, unofficial ultrasound).  Everything looked fine with the placenta, and baby has been kicking up a storm ever since, so I’m just left feeling a little sheepish.  I’m still glad I went in instead of stewing in worry, though.  While I am significantly more relaxed in this pregnancy than in my pregnancy with S, that’s like saying that my wind speeds have dropped from hurricane level to tropical storm level — I am still very, very far from the carefree blissful assumption of a healthy baby that I experienced for the first 18w of my first pregnancy.  But objectively, everything is fine.  I’m starting to drag a little and feel the achy pelvis and lower back that I remember from my pregnancy with S, but it’s still not bad, and I’m still immensely grateful for every day that I’m pregnant with a healthy, squirmy baby.

On the tenure side, I’ve drafted my research and teaching statements, gotten some feedback on them from my PhD advisor and my faculty mentor outside my department (who has served three times on our university tenure committee), updated my annotated CV, and am now revising everything and preparing to submit at the end of the month.  While my materials aren’t technically due until early November, I’ve obviously got another big deadline looming at the same time (i.e., my baby’s due date!) so don’t want to leave it any later than I have to.  I had discussed with my chair turning everything early and he’s totally on board with it.  So, my goal is to get my packet submitted by the end of August, before the semester starts, and then just allow myself to be distracted by teaching and the new baby while the process goes forward over the course of the year.

I am facing one tricky decision that I need to make in the next few weeks, which is whether or not to ask my department to solicit letters from former students as part of my tenure packet.  There’s a little bit of explanation required here: it’s not a standard thing that my department does, but other departments around the university do include it as a standard component of the tenure packet.  The only universally standard metric of teaching effectiveness at my university is the end-of-semester evaluations filled out by students in my classes.  Mine are good — consistently above average numerically, with lots of positive comments and relatively minor gripes.  But I’m also philosophically opposed to having my teaching evaluated only on the basis of those student evaluations, since there’s a ton of research showing that they are biased and not good indicators of teaching effectiveness.

So I’ve wanted to include multiple metrics of teaching effectiveness in my tenure packet.  I already asked my department to send faculty to observe some of my classes (which they’ve sort of done… last semester my chair visited one of my classes and had a really great conversation with me afterwards about his observations, and then another faculty member visited the last 12 minutes of one of my classes and said he thought he got a pretty good sampling of my teaching, blargh).  While I’m glad that I’ll be including peer evaluations to some extent in my packet (another component that is standard in many other departments at my university), the dimension that I think is missing is any sort of measurement of the longitudinal impact of my teaching/mentoring, including the work I do with research students (which falls under the category of teaching at my university).  So, I had discussed with my chair the possibility of soliciting letters from former students.  Apparently my department had their first meeting about my tenure case last week and discussed that they’d be happy to do it, and it’s basically up to me (1) whether or not I want them to do it and (2) what sample of students I want them to ask.

For example, I could ask them to solicit letters from only my former research students, or I could ask them to solicit letters from every student I’ve ever had in class, or I could ask them to solicit letters from only former majors in our department.  Whatever I choose, they will all get the same prompt (which my chair already drafted and shared with me), which is basically a letter from the chair saying that I am being considered for promotion to associate professor with tenure and asking them for any reflections they have on the quality of my teaching and mentorship, and how their experiences with me may have impacted their subsequent career development.  So, a pretty generic prompt, with no carrot or stick to encourage them to reply.

Philosophically, it seems like a great thing to do to assess a dimension of my pedagogy that is not otherwise reflected in my materials.  I suspect I might get some really strong letters — I think I have had a pretty significant positive impact on a number of our students (and I don’t think I’m being delusional about it — certainly I’ve had students tell me that they have felt that way).  But… part of me wonders if I should just leave well enough alone and not introduce an extra dimension of randomness.  My teaching evaluations are good, and on that basis alone I’d probably get tenure, so why rock the boat?  It’s certainly possible that I could get negative letters (though I can’t think of any former students who are out to get me), but the thing I’m more worried about is getting weird letters from students who don’t understand the tenure process and therefore say things in a way that they might think is positive but that might raise questions for the tenure committee.  Basically, the more data the tenure committee has in its hands, the higher the probability that there will be something a little odd for them to fixate on.

So, anyway, I’m thinking about it this week, and planning to talk to my aforementioned outside-the-department faculty mentor to see what her experience has been reading student letters as part of the university tenure committee.  My inclination at the moment is to ask my department to go ahead and solicit the letters, and for the sample to be all of our former majors.  My reasoning is both the principle that I would like my tenure packet to reflect the long-term impact of my teaching/mentoring as a dimension of my teaching effectiveness, and also that I think it’s likely that it will be an overall strength of my packet rather than a weakness (I just don’t think I’ve made any of our students mad enough that they’d be motivated to write and complain about what a horrible professor I am, and I know that I’ve had a significant positive impact on a number of our former students that isn’t reflected in my end-of-semester evaluations and would likely be reflected by these letters).  So, that’s the last big decision I need to make before I turn in my packet.

Overall, this is an exciting and busy time as I prepare for so many new things: a new semester, a new baby, and a new stage of my job.  It’s always easy to love life in August as a university professor, but I’m really feeling the gratitude this year for all of the wonderful things I have in my life.  My anxiety about the tenure process has been kept at a minimum both because I’m actually able to do something about it at this stage (e.g., work on my tenure statements) and because I have had the perspective of expecting a new baby and watching my friend land on her feet after her tenure denial last year — both of those have grounded me and reminded me that whatever the outcome of this case, I’m going to be fine, and in fact, much better than fine.  I’ve also had the wonderful distraction of preparing for the new baby.  My husband and I took most of last week off from work and had a lovely staycation — we did fun stuff with S that we don’t usually have time to do (like taking him on longer trips to the zoo and the aquarium and the beach), and we also kept him in daycare a few days so that we could get stuff done around the house (newborn and 0-3mo clothes are out of storage, washed, and folded, expired infant carseat has been replaced, and my baby to-do list has gotten longer since I finally had time to sit down and think about all the things we need to do).  The big-kid bed transition is officially a success, and I loved having the opportunity to spend more quality time together last week as a family of three — we have a really great family right now, and so much to look forward to.

Academic post

I know most people who read my blog connect most to the pregnancy posts, but every once in a while I just need to write an unabashedly academic post — so feel free to skip, or just enjoy this insight into the wilds of life as a physical science professor.

This week, my first postdoc is leaving my university.  It is so very bittersweet.  He has been in my group for five years — I hired him on a two-year grant, and then when another 3-year NSF grant came through, I kept him on.  He had to switch fields to join my group, so had a steep learning curve, and at the time wasn’t really competitive for another job and wanted to stay, and since he was doing good work, I let him.  Let me say, for the record, I am SO glad I did.

The ways in which he has contributed to my research group and my department are countless.  There’s been the simple fact of having someone in my group thinking full-time about research and working on the tools and infrastructure that we’ve needed to push the whole group’s research forward into this decade.  He’s wonderful with the students, more approachable and less intimidating than I am, and yet still pushing them towards independence rather than coddling them.  And as a member of our department, he has been the sort of team player who is comfortable both leading and following — he has led some of our department’s most important equity and inclusion initiatives, including starting a journal club to discuss recent papers on STEM equity.  He has been an enthusiastic and reliable contributor to our department’s outreach program, including saving our bacon by filling in last-minute on more than one occasion.  He taught a class to gain experience and did a wonderful job.  He’s hosted an annual tamale-making party for the students (no faculty allowed).  When something needs to be done around the department, even if it’s not glamorous, he steps up — all while getting his work done and having a life outside of work.  He is exactly the sort of person I would hope for as a long-term colleague, and I am going to miss him so, so much.

His departure is bittersweet — as sad as I am that he is leaving, I am delighted for him because he got exactly the kind of job he wanted, and exactly the kind of job I think he’s going to kick butt at.  He will manage a facility and be a lab instructor at a tippy-top-ranked liberal arts college, which is just the sort of job he wanted.  He’ll be only 2.5 hours away from us by car, and I’ll see him at least ~twice a year since our department is part of a consortium with this department and a handful of others, so I won’t truly be losing him as a colleague.  It’s the best possible way his time with me could have ended.

His departure brings up so many thoughts and questions for me.  I know I might not get as lucky with every postdoc I ever hire, but having him has been so delightful and so symbiotically wonderful for his career and mine that it makes me want to do it again.  It also makes me think a bit wistfully about my choice to join a department with no PhD program.  I suspect that my experience with this postdoc is akin to the experience of a typical R1 faculty member with their best PhD students.  And it has been beautiful, and I suspect will form the basis of a very productive long-term collaboration between us (at any rate, he’ll be on all my group’s papers for the foreseeable future thanks to his work on our software capabilities).  I also have to recognize that he has made a significant contribution to my competitiveness for tenure.  I mean, I know some of that is thanks to my hard work — I wrote the grants that paid for him to be here, I wrote the proposals that got the initial data for his projects, I trained him to enter my field and I supervised and mentored his research and other work all the way along.  But man, has he paid me back, in spades.  He has been such a productive collaborator, generating papers, coming up with his own ideas, taking my group’s research in new directions, and bringing our code base back into cutting-edge territory, which I haven’t had time to work on with all the teaching and supervising I do. I mention a cool idea I thought of or heard about at a conference, and he makes it happen and improves it in ways I never would have thought of — and he also finds new tools and tries them out, which enriches all the research my group does.  It’s awesome.

I’m grateful to be in a department that welcomes and supports postdocs — not all liberal arts colleges have this culture.  But it does make me question, to some extent, whether the choice to take the liberal arts college route was really the right one for me.  On balance, I think so.  I am very, very happy with my balance of responsibilities here (especially teaching vs. research), and while I’d love to have more postdocs like this one, part of what has made having him here so special is that he is the only one I’ve had — I haven’t had to juggle mentoring five grad students and a postdoc, which means I’ve naturally been more involved with him, which I think has worked out well for both of us.

We just had our last research meeting EVER.  It was so sad, and so sweet.  We’d each gotten each other little gifts.  He got me a book about recent research on women in science and a cooperative board game for ages 2+ that I can play with my son and husband (um, he might have gotten to know me a little bit while he’s been here!).  I had commissioned a former art major / gen-ed student of mine to make an artsy sketch of the beautiful historic building that we work in, which I then framed — our building is a really special place to work (it’s featured on all of the publicity photos of our college, for example, but it’s also a functional part of the type of work that we do), and I figured that it might be nice for him to have a tangible reminder of the happy (I think) times he spent here, even as he moves on to new places and new adventures.  I didn’t want to give him something too personal, but did want to give him something that I thought might be meaningful to remind him of his time here — and help him decorate his new office.

So, with nothing but fondness and gratitude, I’m bidding him farewell this week.  His last day is Friday, and I’m taking the whole group out to lunch and then organizing an informal gathering for the whole department in the afternoon to send him off.  We will miss him, and I will always be very grateful for his many contributions and for the chance to know him and have him as a colleague.

Mother’s Day Sandwich

The concept of the “sandwich generation” has really been resonating with me lately.

In the last year, I’ve experienced parenting a toddler, two miscarriages, one first trimester, the death of my father, and two major surgeries for my mother.  Since my parents were divorced for 25 years before my father died and I’m an only child, all their arrangements/care has fallen to me.  All while doing my full-time job, of course.  We spent this Mother’s Day visiting my mom in the hospital at the end of her week-long stay — she had a hip replacement last Monday (her second), then had a bad fall on Wednesday, needed surgery again on Thursday, and I just brought her home today.  We packed up the toddler into the car on Saturday and came to her house for the weekend to take care of her cat and her house and visit her while she was still in the hospital.  I’m writing this from her house, where I’ll be for the next couple of days taking care of her as she starts to recover, and then I’ll be driving back and forth (two hours each way) several times over the next couple of weeks, depending on what she needs.  We just did this in December/January with her first hip surgery, so at least we both know better what to expect this time.

I’m exhausted, no joke.  The timing isn’t awful, since it’s the end of my semester, but I’m still running around like a chicken with my head cut off this week begging random people to proctor exams for my extended time students while I’m with my mom, figuring out what to do about the student who badly burned his hand while fire-juggling this weekend, dealing with the student whose dean told me that she was almost hospitalized for mental illness this week and is trying to help her figure out whether she can finish the semester, and the stack of term papers that are sitting there giving me the hairy eyeball while the clock ticks down to the day that senior grades are due on Monday.  With all of my extended-time students and various other necessary accommodations, out of two classes with a total of 85 students I have had to make arrangements for a grand total of 26 hours of exam proctoring this week, not to mention all my regular grading work and, you know, writing, editing, and printing the exams, running review sessions, and dealing with the inevitable “I know it’s exam week but can you please please meet with me for two hours the day before the final because I’m freaking out about stuff I still haven’t learned and now I’m finally motivated to learn it.”

Anyway, yesterday it was all kind of crashing down on me.  But at some point after driving the two hours back from visiting my mom with my toddler only sort-of napping in the back and then dealing with his meltdown at the end of a weekend of disrupted routine and cooking dinner for the dear friends that we didn’t want to uninvite over since who knows when we’ll be free to see them again and having had no time whatsoever for a Mother’s Day celebration myself, I suddenly thought, “How lucky am I?”

I am so lucky.  I’m so lucky to have my amazing son, my wonderful husband, my dear mother, and our unborn son as part of my lives.  The sandwich generation is only a thing for people who are fortunate enough to have their kids and parents in their lives at the same time — I am so needed only because I am so deeply involved in the lives of all of these people.  The death of my father this year only drives home to me how fragile it all is, how short our time here on Earth is together, and how fortunate I am to have such rich relationships (which he never really had).  And at least my mother should recover from these surgeries (if all goes well) and have many more healthy years with me and her grandson(s) before we have to say goodbye to her.  After all our pregnancy losses, I never take for granted how incredibly fortunate I am to be mother to a living child, nor to be pregnant with his little brother, and it was so sweet to see my son giving his Nana a hug and kiss in the hospital and getting to bring her his school photo (which turned out completely adorable this year, unlike last year) along with the flowers to brighten up her hospital room.  This is life: messy, hard, but ultimately beautiful.  Being there when things are tough — for your tantruming toddler or your convalescing mother — is what it’s all about.

There will be lots of other Mothers Days that will hopefully be a little calmer, but I wouldn’t trade this one for anything.

Update: End of the 1st trimester

Seems unbelievable, but I’m rounding the corner at the end of the first trimester!  I had a prenatal appointment today at 12w5d.  Going into the appointment, I felt the Schrodinger’s Cat duality of wondering whether my baby was alive or dead.  As I walked into my OB’s office, I reflected that despite my knowledge of the statistics, it felt to me as though my personal odds were about 50/50 of getting news of a living baby.  I would have been equally unsurprised by either outcome.  Fortunately, this time the statistics prevailed, and I heard a strong, steady heartbeat, which the OB had to chase around my abdomen since apparently this baby is particularly active.  I really like this OB, and she seems to have picked up on the fact that I am not really interested in chatting until I’ve heard the heartbeat, so this time she got right to it.  I still didn’t have much to chat with her about, since, I mean, what is there to ask at this point in the pregnancy?  But I appreciated her willingness to keep letting me come back as often as I want to check in on this new little guy (I’ve been successfully limiting myself to every two weeks for these late-first-tri visits, although with all the RE/MFM visits this was the first actual two-week stretch that I went without news).

Since everything was still looking good, I decided to go ahead and tell the other faculty in my department — with the way I’m popping, I’m going to need to switch into maternity pants soon, so I figured I’d tell them before they had to awkwardly pretend not to notice.  Their responses were completely in character for each of them.  My chair, who is the next-most-senior faculty member in my department, the person in my department I am most friendly with, and dad of three young children, was delighted for me, asked questions, reminisced about when his older kids first met their younger siblings, asked about how S was taking the news, and assured me when it came up that we don’t have to talk about my teaching load for the fall right away if I don’t want to and went straight back to baby talk.  A+ response for him.

The next-most-senior faculty member was pretty formal.  He shook my hand, asked if I was “ready,” and did a bit of reminiscing about when his own two kids (now teenagers) were little, and about how he didn’t sleep for seven years straight.  Fine.  I’ll give it a B+.

Then I told our research faculty member, who has a 6-year-old daughter and who is also the most stereotypical nerd I have ever met.  He “wow”ed and “that’s amazing”ed and told me about how his daughter keeps asking for a younger sibling even though he and his wife are clearly too old.  He didn’t have much to say, but was supportive, and I know he’s the sort of nice guy who is just happy for me and doesn’t really know what to do with it.  He gets an A- for effort.

Then, there was the senior member of my department.  He… was also true to form.  Awkwardly gave me a high-five when I told him, then immediately asked if the pregnancy was planned.  I answered politely, but had to work really hard to keep my eyes from rolling.  Then he asked a few more questions, I told him I was due Nov 7 and it was a boy, and he immediately became concerned about teaching.

Him: November… are you taking leave in the fall?

Me: I don’t know yet.  I need to talk to [chair] about it.

Him: But what are you teaching?

Me: The advanced course.

Him: Oh, man, that’s going to be a tough one to schedule around.  Have you thought about it yet?

Me: I’m going to talk to [chair] about it.  I have some ideas.

He finally moved on, but just did not take the hint that I was going to talk to [chair] about it and was not interested in discussing it with him at that moment!  I mean, I know he’s been around our department the longest and has been chair the longest of anyone and is super-attuned to curriculum issues, but… as my husband said when I told him about the conversation after I got home, “That conversation is a great example of the things people say that make women feel discouraged in science/academia.”  Knowing this guy, I know he wasn’t trying to be discouraging or insensitive, and that he is happy for me, so it didn’t actually bother me much at the time.  But he’s also put his foot in his mouth in this way a bunch of times before and I kind of wish I could call him on it once in a while.

Anyway, that’s the story.  We are at the hairy end of the academic year, when things are just completely off-the-wall crazy, and so I think I’ll put off the nuts-and-bolts conversation with my chair about teaching until next week when we’ve both had a chance to finish our last classes and breathe a little.  I would like to get to it soon, because I am worried about what the university will/won’t allow and would just like to know that there’s a plan in place, but I was also grateful to just have the happy conversation with the chair today and save the nitty gritty for a bit later.

So, that’s the scoop!  I’m feeling optimistic heading into the second trimester.  Still nervous, still with my (many) moments of panic and uncertainty like this morning, but overall handling things better than during my pregnancy with S, I think.  As far as spreading the word further than the people who see me every day, I’m not in a rush.  I think I’ll let it spread organically as I run into friends and acquaintances.  But as scary as it can be to tell people about a pregnancy when you’ve had so many bad experiences in the past, it’s also fun, and it’s nice when people you like are happy for you.  (My chair/friend told me that my news “made his day” as I was leaving.)  So, I’m looking forward to spreading the news as it happens, and am also starting to allow myself to get a bit more excited about the prospect of adding a new little one to our family this fall.