Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sometimes I do not want to pick up a newspaper

I do not enjoy reading the newspapers when a big story exists regarding a negative assessment of one's race, class, or gender. Recently conservative pundits decry Judge Sotomayor as nothing more than an exercise of so-called "identity politics." The New York Times ran a pretty decent piece about the process today. But it is amazing to consider how the rhetoric changes when it looks as though a woman from an ethnic minority might be promoted.

President Obama indicated that diversity constituted an important criterion; he defined diversity to include experience, character, judgment, and points of view. He generated a short list of candidates that came from a wide range of professional backgrounds. From a list of 9, who passed through a process of a 10-page review and then a 60-70-page review, he interviewed 4.

What's rather amazing to me is that people are citing that he didn't interview any men in the in-person stage as evidence that the process reflects inherent bias. I have read so many results of search processes that insist that the reason why no women were invited to an interview was that no qualified woman could be found. Usually such rationale of only inviting the qualified to an interview withstands scrutiny. Granting 4 of 9 candidates on the short list an interview after vetting them through 70-80 pages of paper with conversations amongst a wide array of people seems like a pretty fair ratio to me.

I do not understand why people resort to language like "(Person) only got an interview because of diversity issues around race and gender." Such language, at best, is an act of bullying; at worst, it is an act of violence.

Monday, May 25, 2009

An Open Letter to My Friends

To my friends,

May peace and tranquility surround you even amid the darkness many of you find yourselves.

I think about you all daily, wondering about how you are doing, where you are, and if you are safe. The last week has sharpened my remembrance as I have seen the flags go up, the makeshift memorials, and heard rumors of the three-day weekend. Driving around Bridge City, I saw a display of human-sized flags, standing upright at attention, in nearly perfect formation. You all taught me what various formations look like so I know that things were not quite right. With all the conflicts that have happened since we met, I know that one of these flags may be standing watch over you as you gave the ultimate sacrifice. I have rejoiced to find so many of you on Facebook in the past year, if for no other reason but to have a way of knowing that you are still alive.

You are the people who taught me so much about attention to detail, about getting things done, about knowing what matters first, second, and last. You decided to get involved and stay involved even though you knew you were headed into harms way. To be sure, some of you used the system to get ahead, putting only in what was required and no more. But so many more of you remain. I see your pictures, and I know you have traveled to more places in a wider array of circumstances than I could ever imagine. I see your face and still can separate your work from your play. The somber seriousness that marks your job requires a game face indeed.

So thank you my friends. Thank you for being willing to discipline yourselves to be at the front lines. Thank you for the courage to go after your dreams. Thank you for instilling in me the gravity of a bravo foxtrot. Thank you for calling me to be a person aware of the domino effect of my own actions. Thank you for your service.

May the memories of all of the fallen be eternal +

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Bouncing Back

Academic life can be brutal. Exploring new ideas in front of a community inevitably causes the ideas to be at risk of catastrophic failure and rejection.

Yet as someone just getting started, "peer review" scarcely seems fair. For some reason, I have an easier time parsing harsh criticisms when it comes to taking it from a journal audience as opposed to someone located within my in-person community. I know I should expect (and perhaps even demand) to have papers ripped to shreds, but I do not like being left to fall flat on my face when I actively seek assistance.

So, Internet friends, how do you do it? How do you build a network of people who can help you with exploring brand-new (to you) topics? More importantly, how do you bounce back from a particularly shredding feedback session?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What are degrees good for anyway?

It's commencement; lots of people I know are commencing. It's been a busy week of attending, supporting, and cheering...and charting my own course. As the first round of senior graduate students move towards their post-PhD existences, I have been thinking about what I would like to accomplish with my years that remain as a PhD student. Spending this much time in reflective thought can be a decidedly mixed blessing, but every once in a while, a little navel inspection is in order.

I have been working on my Plan of Study. Well, more like I have been working on a plan that lets me plan to complete my Plan of Study...yeah, the planning stage twice-removed which sounds about as exciting as attending your third-cousin's wedding out of family obligation. The advanced planning comes from being in an interdisciplinary space, working with new research methods that I have never seen before, and pulling together a Plan of Study from the thin air of the course offerings list. Most of what I want to do has never been done before so I get to play my own guinea pig and navigate my way around experimental course numbers and far too many course offerings that strike me as either a) interesting, b) relevant, c) accessible with my current knowledge, or d) a combination of the above. I have spent some time scrounging around in the various department policies, trying to make heads or tails of things that just do not seem to be well-suited to my needs. And as I type this, I'm realizing that trying to figure out what fits is kind of like bra shopping...I'm never going to find one that really meets all of my needs. And I just stumbled across the quintessential engineering challenge knowing that my requirements exist as definite trade-offs. So, in the span of a couple of paragraphs, I have gone from talking about graduation, to course planning, to awkward family functions, to politics, to bra shopping, and wound up at engineering. Either I'm in a very strange head space that's okay or I should be concerned; I'm going with the latter.

But I'm on a mission at the moment to figure out how to get the most out of my time here at Bridge University and get the biggest bang from my efforts. Because I look at so many classes across so many different departments, I have been toying with figuring out what is expected to earn a Master's Degree in my various fields of interest. So, the question becomes, why would anyone want a Master's Degree, or any other degree for that matter?

As I see it, each degree serves its own purpose. I'm definitely coming at this from an engineer's perspective so I think my comments below will be a little confined to STEM disciplines, but if anyone regards themselves as more of a humanities type, I would love to see how you parse it.

The first degree is the Bachelor's Degree. This degree is an orientation to the profession, a chance to try some ideas on and see what fits. Experiences help you target your life goal in some general direction, but a lot of uncertainty remains, particularly if you head off to graduate school.

The next degree is the Master's Degree. Here the degree seems all about gaining the tools to do research in the thing that you find to be interesting and fascinating, and in the words of Dr. Isis, way hot science. Course plans seem to be dominated by research methods and statistics required to make sense of whatever sort of messy data your science produces. You have an opportunity for a bit of a tease into a focus, but the Master's Degree is more about learning how to do research.

And then, as it would seem, the PhD is about doing that research. Inevitably, you realize that you still need some more theoretical help to do the things that you want to do so you could take a class or muck about in the literature and hope for the best. But what you are there to do, first and foremost, is taste the first-fruits of an incredibly publish-or-perish sort of life while actually having some people around you take a vested interest in what you are attempting to do.

I do have to say that I'm a little disappointed that Master's Degrees aren't more like "Course Catalog Roulette." If I am seeing 5-8 courses in a department that I want to take, then it seems like I would have a Master's Degree argument. But, alas and alack, most departments appear to be rather picky about what counts.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Why I find "Just Do Your Job" Rhetoric Repugnant

Yes, a rant is coming, but it's worth ranting about so I'm going to go there.

With his speech at the University of Notre Dame, President Obama hit a flash point regarding the abortion rhetoric. I actually read his speech, and while I could not disagree more fully on his approach towards abortion, I found his speech to be well-tempered, even, and well-placed for changing the conversation regarding abortion to the issues that truly matter. Someone on a corner screaming "My body, my choice!" and another person screaming "You baby-killer!" are equally ill-positioned for thoughtful dialogue.

Yet, I know people who are incredibly conscious-bound to never participate in an abortion. I also know people who are incredibly conscious-bound to never participate in armed conflict. We have clauses that allow persons to be a conscientuous objector to armed conflict, but the only avenue people generally ascribe towards health-care providers that if someone is conscious-bound to never participate in an abortion, then they ought to find another job. After all, abortion is a part of a health-care providers job, so just do your job.

Just do your job.

These words make me wonder if someone has read the transcripts of the Numerburg trials. After all, they were soliders, following orders, just doing their job.

But more than that: implicitly within this rhetoric, we find a critical mass of assumptions. Two phrases come to mind that encapuslate these assumptions: "The customer is alway right" and "Father knows best."

So here we have our consumer-society shaping and calling the shots. If I want something in America, then I should be able to have it. That is, after all, the American way and look out world if I do not get what I want. As an engineer, I have to cry bullshit. Some things cannot be done sustainably, safely, or ethically.

And then we also have our politics, industry, or government calling the shots. If the government says something should be permitted or defensible, who am I to question it? Way to go Nancy Pelosi. If my industry is creating something, then who am I not to assist? Anyone want the latest in missile guidance technology?

People who stand within the gap with an ethically-attuned compass are professionals. To tell a professional "Just do your job." is to rob them of the very core about what it means to be a professional. When people refuse to "just do their job" and stand up for what is right, we applaud them. Now we can get into the grey area about what is right, and we do it all of the time, but for the love of every person and their humanity, "Just do your job." has to go.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Wisdom in a Comic Strip

Over at PhD Comics, the humanities are on trial. Reading around higher education news, humanities appear to be getting even a shorter end of the stick than usual with the latest round of budget cuts. In today's strip, Gerard raises a good question.

All too often, I think we miss the philosophical, moral, and ethical implications of what we say and do. Within my work, I strive to consider these implications as it relates to understand what is required in order to be a socially-relevant engineer. I do not have illusions of grandeur or greatness that engineers represent the only needed profession (and yes, I know some people who think engineers make the best everything), but I do hope to improve on my corner of the world.

Yet it is amazing to me what happens within the construct and context of scientific inquiry as it subverts the role of philosophy. Just yesterday, I read that "It is not surprising that as we ride the crest of evolution we have taken over the title of creator" (Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, 1996). What we do, how we think, and what we value have an incredible power to restrict and confine us to ourselves.

A wise elder once told me, "Banish 'I, me, and my' from your vocabulary. When you use words like these, you become an individual, an atom standing alone. But when you ask another, 'How can I serve you today?' then you become a person."

Oh the challenges to become fully human. And as a person once penned in the second century, "The glory of God is a human fully alive." Really living and flourishing as a human being demands a struggle with all of the things that confront us.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Rather impressive

So Alice over at ScienceWomen just posted this video. I have to say that I, too, want to be this kind of engineer.

Like many universities, we're in the Commencement mode at Bridge U. I've been thinking big thoughts even as I try to find the good in my last semester. This year, more than ever, I realize that we find commencement even when we're not looking for it. We retire projects that aren't going anywhere, we begin with new ideas, and we try to push everything to the next level.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

But we like our class privilege!

With that sort of blog title, you know a rant is coming.

Today, I am seriously thinking about how 4-year universities consider their role in society. Generally, I have accepted the common wisdom that it is challenging to get a job without a 4-year degree as "a politically reasonable talking point" as such talking points have been advanced to create a nation of young people geared towards college. "Politically reasonable" does not mean that such a view carries my endorsement; my own position sees the necessity of some sort of post-secondary training for most jobs.

So, this morning, I scanned the headlines from the NY Times and stumbled across an article entitled "Community Colleges Challenge Hierarchy with 4-Year Degrees" and proceeded to have my senses of social justice extremely irked.

In the interest of a bit of disclosure, I went to a Public School with some pretty progressive arrangements with Local Community College and Local University. I earned credits at both institutions of higher learning as a high school student. Because of the socioeconomic breakdowns in my town, several of my friends began study at Local Community College with various degrees of knowledge about how to concoct a plan of study that involved several transfer points.

Financially, community colleges make a lot of sense for a lot of people, particularly if they are first-generation college students, non-traditional students, women and/or people of color. Typically, if someone completes all of their education at a community college, one can expect to have a very career-based training. Community colleges generally offer solid preparation for jobs that both pay well and are hard to find a 4-year degree to complete (law enforcement, paralegal services, nursing, early childhood education, nursing, drafting and assorted engineering technologies all come to mind).

But what happens if a community college decides to offer a 4 year degree in something like teaching, nursing, or public safety management? The traditional system blows up in outrage.

Seriously people, what in the world is your problem? If someone has a baccalaureate degree in applied science of nursing, then it becomes much easier to navigate through the systems of promotion on the job. It helps educational programs differentiate between various nursing careers such as LPN and RN, where the RNs can gain an extra year. Moving to a 4-year model embeds some flexibility in a jam-packed pipeline. Granting baccalaureates increases the ability to recruit nurse educators as they are more likely to see the program as "authentic" over a program that can only grant an associate's degree. It allows current 3-year nursing programs with pre-requisite schooling to become a 4-year track for students.

Yet, you get accusations of "mission creep" and tell community colleges to "stick with the important work they do extremely well." Way to go political speech to say, "You aren't a real college of any weight to provide people needed education in the 21st century."

Continuation rates between community colleges and their 4-year counterparts are abysmal. Many 4-year programs refuse to identify the work that students have completed in community colleges, particularly if those 4-year programs have any status. Courses will count in a general credit sense, but not in terms of major fulfillment. To that, I have to say "Major FAIL" in the direction of 4-year programs.

Seriously, consider the nature of the degrees being offered at the community college. If they start going to the general scholarly model of offering programs indistinct from 4-year colleges, then I think the 4-year colleges may have a point. But that's not what we're seeing. The programs that are advancing through a 4-year degree model are high-need, high-skilled careers and professions that strive to meet the needs of the local community that surrounds the community college.

Telling someone that they can start in a 2-year environment at one cost, and then have that cost increase by at least one order of magnitude before they can finish their 4-year program does not serve many people all that well. By identifying critical career areas in their community, the community colleges can live into their mission of providing exceptional education for the local needs of local people.

Miami Dade College, keep up the good work. Way to strive to keep your doors open to the underfunded overachievers.

Friday, May 1, 2009

ACHOO! It's dusty around here!

Sorry all for falling off the face of the blogosphere. I've had a fair share of things come across the realm of activity that have been completely unbloggable. It's also the end of the semester, so it's been crazy.

I finally got up the courage to log into my account today, and discovered an email telling me that I had been named one of the Top 50 Engineering Professor blogs. *falls over in shock* I'm in company with the likes of Candid Engineer, ScienceWomen, Zuska, and Dr. Isis among 45 other amazing blogs. Go check it out!

It seems like the end of the semester invites unbloggable activities. And the end of the semester always invites resolutions about how to avoid repeat at the end of the semester.

Some of my resolutions (in no particular order):
  • Place short books and edited volumes at the top of my reading list. I like feeling like I'm finishing reading something that's not for class. Putting a 700-pager on top can make one feel like an epic fail.
  • Itemize priority around areas of one's health (physical, mental, spiritual, relational, financial). Try to combine around things that you can. For instance, cooking for one's self instead of always eating out can help out both the physical and financial health.
  • Learn to say no and step back from things that are ballooning to fill way too much space in life.
  • Trust the people you find yourself around often; try to extend positive thoughts in their general direction as much as possible.
  • Carve out a space to do something intellectually different, but still interesting. When you work in a highly interdisciplinary field, you don't know what sort of combinations may present themselves.
  • And for the students...leverage your research credits.

So, hopefully I'll find some more time to be around these parts. I have a lot of things that I thought "OooooOOOoooooo, I should blog about that" even though I obviously did not.