Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Studying up

The aspects of academia that I readily identify with are not the politics of it all, but rather the roles of teacher and student. I've been working on both of those lately. In preparation for the coming term, I've been working on my schedule of assignments and order of topics for the courses I'll be teaching. While I previously mentioned a first draft of one of the courses, I've since modified it a bit. I decided for a variety of reasons not to be quite so creative, at least during this first term back as a teacher. I've decided to pretty much stick to the text, rather than expecting several sessions for special lectures. Another reason for this decision is simply not to make more work for myself than is necessary. This isn't entirely laziness. I'm motivated in part because going back to the classroom after a seven-year hiatus brings with it a need for testing the waters a bit more safely than I had imagined.

With my other hat, as student, I've been going through one of my wife's calculus texts, and a text on C++ programming, as well as a volume directly relevant to applied research field and yet another (which I've mentioned before) on patents. Today, I decided it best for me to start defining the algorithms for the proofs-of-concept that I'm working on. It's fun to get into the nitty gritty, to tease out all the various subtleties, varieties, and ramifications of the problems.

The hard part is defining the problem, and the necessary steps for solving it. Once that's done, I can make a decision as to whether I will simply acquire all the necessary skills to do it myself or hire someone to translate my algorithm into a program capable of handling all the calculations.

Funny, it's been so long since I did any programming. It's been forever since I've studied higher math. I like learning. I like the challenge of it all.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Reinforcing the View

I created this new blog with an eye toward a new chapter in my life. As I described then, I haven't made a complete break with my former self.

I sent a note yesterday to my sometime correspondent, Joe Krowicki, whose encouragement both inside and outside academia has been important for me.
Hi Joe,

It's been a while. Just thought I'd send you a note, see how you're doing. I'm still plugging away at my ideas for practical applications in [Applied Research Field]. I'm hoping to have a patent application worked up by the end of the year. That's keeping me busy. I've realized I need to hone up my programming skills (or hire someone) to test some of my theories. I really need some means for manipulating the data in ways that will allow that. So, I've been working my way through some texts on that count.

Meantime, I'll be teaching adjunct this year at Lemon University. I'm somewhat ambivalent about it at the moment. I guess I was set up to expect so much more (by myself as much as anyone else), so it's hard to accept a part-time adjunct post two years after the PhD as a big step up.

I've decided to keep my eyes open this year, but I feel less and less interested in taking just any faculty post, especially as I'm optimistic that I can build something with my research. The past couple years have inured me of expecting too much from the academic job market. If something promising opens up, I'll send my application. Otherwise, I'll keep plugging away at my own projects. Once I've worked up some proof-of-concept demos, I'll be looking for venture capital or some such. No telling about things though, as you well know.

I was a plenary speaker at a conference on [topic] in England in June. That was quite a treat. Got to see [mutual friends], and others. How was your time in Europe?

Hi Articulate,

Thanks for the update. You may or may not enjoy the teaching. A lot seems to depend on the composition of the class. I have taught for years. Some groups are great and others aren't. Academia, as a job, is not that great. It has a civil-service quality to it, so people accept the mediocre pay and many hassles in exchange for decent benefits and occasionally interesting tasks. Of course industry and commerce have their own downsides--maybe some combination of the academic and the non-academic will fit the bill.

With best wishes,
I suppose that's what I've lighted upon, isn't it? And Rocket this morning reflected on just how much she hates the commute. Plan the escape... That's our job, remember. We will get what we want. We deserve it. We will prove worthy of it--is what I wrote in reply.

The Professor is In

Yesterday, I completed a draft of the schedule for one of my classes to be taught (an "intro to" for non-majors). It was a good milestone. As it stands, I get through the entire text and three tests in the first 25 of 29 class sessions. The third test is just before Thanksgiving break. That leaves us four sessions for catch up (if we fall behind), or more hopefully for reflecting on the material we covered during the semester, and bringing up some new topics closer to my heart and theirs. That, and reviewing for the final. I've never taken a class that followed that sort of model, completing the core materials early, then spending the last few sessions reflecting on it, making it relevant to questions beyond the text and coverage. I'd like to bring in some of my own work, explore some of the students' interests, take what we've learned and apply it in a novel situation. We'll see. The best laid plans...

I think I'll get back to some of my other research a bit today. Perhaps I'll draft up the schedule for my other class. I'll be teaching the same courses both terms, both for non-majors. There are just a few specific requirements for the first class, as in "you must cover x," but otherwise, I'm free to design it as I please. The second class is wide open. It's a somewhat openly-defined topic, and the coordinator for the course has given me full leeway. I chose a text, a rather short one, and will be supplementing it with readings from other materials. I'm going to be presenting standard coverage of the topic (the text is written by several of the big names in that subfield), but also covering topics (like the subject of the conference in England last month), which are up-and-coming, but about which I have a great deal of expertise.

We'll see how this first term goes. One of the things I sought in a graduate school was the opportunity to design my own courses. When I taught at the community college in Colorado, before heading back to get my PhD, I was fairly free, but more restrained. In part, I didn't have as much confidence in my own knowledge (it was my first time teaching at the college level). So, I stuck very much to the text in coverage, peppering my talks with accumulated knowledge and my own ideas as time went along. But I never had the opportunity to create a new course whole cloth.

Other than one interdisciplinary seminar that I taught in grad school (which I did design start to finish, though with only moderate results), and a few guest sections or invited lectures here or there, I haven't had my own classroom for seven years. This year will be my chance to really test myself as an instructor, to toy with how to structure a course, covering what needs covering, but expanding and directing as I see fit. If I can really pull this off, it may just reopen me to the possibilities academia affords. If not, at least I've tried.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

More confusion

Those of you who were regular readers of my old blog may recall the competition for my favors a few months ago, dueling invitations for conferences on different continents. I wound up attending the one in England, in part because they were earlier in their invitation, and had sooner assured me of funding (though to be honest, I've yet to receive a reimbursement). It was a wonderful trip, quite a treat to be part of a conference where I was one of the leading lights, and not merely a hanger-on.

I just received a note from the other conference organizer in Canada saying she hoped to reopen the conversation. Apparently, their inaugural event was a great success, and they're planning to hold another one, tentatively scheduled for next June. She wanted to entice my interest, and invite me to draft up a proposal for something that would fit into to their planned events, where I could participate as invited faculty. It's new and I confess quite pleasing to be pursued in this way. ("Close a door, and someone's sure to knock.")

Thus my /scholar/professor comes back to goad me. I've been working on my class syllabi for Lemon University today. One unexpected boon from the au pair trials, is that we'll actually have someone to watch the boys during the day over the next two weeks. M will be returning to Germany for a couple weeks, to visit family and friends, and most importantly the U.S. Embassy to receive her student visa. I had expected to watch the boys most of that time, meaning no chance for course prep (or research).

Since we've got arriving on Saturday, other than a few days of transitioning, during which I'll spend all or most of the days at home, I'll be back working on a normal schedule. M moves out tomorrow evening. Then we pick up D at the airport the following day.

Do we ever settle into one sort of being?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Souring grapes

And why am I so... so detached from my academic self these days? I think of Leslie Madsen-Brooks' recent column on "Slash and Braided Careers," and I realize I've become somewhat removed, estranged even, from my academic self.

In 1983, I joined the university ranks, as an early admission freshman at City College of New York. I've always felt at home in the academy. One fantasy I had in my teens was to found and direct an academy of learning. I never really worked it out, but I had in mind a place where knowledge and learning and inquiry were king.

I've become jaded of the university however, bitter I admit that it seems to have refused me entry as professor. Last night, Rocket and I took a brief walk around the neighborhood. Recently, I find myself a bit uncertain as to which step to take next. I mentioned my floppy fish metaphor. I reiterated my somewhat self-pitying "It seems to have all been largely a waste if time, the PhD. I've really gotten nothing for it." Not so, really, she retorted. You've got this gig at Lemon, it might be less than you expected, too little, too late... but it's something.

Ah yes, it is something. You'll enjoy yourself once you get in front of a classroom, she continued today at lunch. (She had an OB visit, so we were able to share a meal afterwards). I've sat in my office today not really getting much work done.

The idea of being an entrepreneur, of pursuing a collection of research projects that truly capture my excitement and interest, to move along without regard to the requisites of getting tenure (publishing and presenting willy-nilly; quantity over quality; say something whether or not you have anything to say--you can always retract it later) is rather freeing.

Partly, I'm not desperate to take a faculty post, any post. That's something too. But... it doesn't mean I have to throw away my /academic. I am a /scholar. That's irredeemable. But scholar and professor are different things. At least, they're different titles, bringing with themselves different expectations and duties.

Come the end of next month, I will hold the title of Lecturer once again (perhaps even Visiting Assistant Professor, if I can muster it). It's a bit disappointing I suppose, because there's a bit of the missed expectations.

It's as if a friend had told you how wonderful the food was at this Indian Restaurant: Oh my god, it's to die for. I mean, it's the best Naan I've ever tasted, and the saag paneer, oh.... I'm drooling here,... and the samosas, and tandoori, I mean all of it. Run, don't walk. You won't be disappointed.

And after such an introduction, only Brahma himself with a retinue of Vishnu and Shiva as sous-chefs could provide! Nothing short of nirvana would do. And... it won't do. Their really fine dining is sure to fall just a bit off the mark of expectation, and by falling short of those (perhaps unreal) expectations, we're sure to overinflate our disappointment, like investors fleeing a stock after the anticipated 23% growth in earnings comes in a mere 19%!

And so it is with my academic career. I thought I'd fly from freshly minted PhD, to Dr. Glorious, the new and resplendent shining star of the department, emblazoning the school with my wit and charm and cutting edge research. Instead, I'm welcomed, almost begrudgingly, as a soiled post-doc, to adjunct a couple classes at a quarter to a third the going rate I'd have gotten on the tenure track.

Maybe I will light up a bit once I have that classroom of my own. Meantime, I suppose I ought give the course prep my best effort. And it behooves me to keep my eyes open for those few positions that might emerge that have Articulate Dad please apply written all over them. Only time will tell.


Rocket and I have long observed that I'm more ready in general for change than she is. I've sometimes described myself as a chameleon, able to blend in and adapt to new environments. In ways, I thrive on change. I like the challenge of novelty, figuring out the pathways. I hold firm to my notion of cultivated naivety, whereby I'm willing to attempt the impossible, because I refuse to accept conventional notions. I feign naivety where it suits me to ignore arguments that it can't be done.

And yet, in ways, I'm slow to change. I like to spend a good long time considering options, rendering a decision based on considered judgment. M threw a wrench into that a couple weeks ago, when she announced all on a sudden, that the mother of a friend of hers had invited her to move in with them, to take care of her twin 6-year olds part-time (about 25 hours a week). She offered to pay her the going rate of an au pair (despite the fact that M will be here on a student visa, and thus legally restricted from working). We had earlier discussed a work around, had she stayed with us, as planned.

I had called the IRS and ascertained that there was nothing preventing us from supporting her (gifting to her a weekly allowance). It's a gray area for sure. She couldn't be an employee of ours, but there's no law preventing her from watching the boys of her own accord. In any case, we hadn't worked out details. She had asked if we would sponsor her as a student, and expressed a willingness to continue helping to watch the boys, saying she'd mostly take night classes. We even offered to buy a car for her exclusive use, so long as she paid the insurance. (We figured taking her off our insurance would save us about $200/month, so buying a $4000-5000 car would be about the same after a couple years, or should we sell it for half the purchase price a year later). Everything was open to discussion.

Until that is, she decided hastily to scrap it all. I suppose the appeal of working for and living with a truly wealthy family (which they are) was too much for her to pass on. The upshot is, we're getting ourselves a new au pair, who arrives on Saturday. She's on in-country transition, because her current host family had an opportunity to place their daughter in their first-choice daycare center earlier than planned, and didn't feel willing to pass on the opportunity. She's able to continue with a new family until December, and open to the prospect of extending after that, ideally until May, which is really perfect timing for us, since that's about the time Rocket would either return to work after taking 3 months off following the baby's birth, or when we might pack up and head to other parts.

This was unexpected, but I suppose it may all work out for the best. No gray areas to worry about, and perhaps the novelty will be good for all parties involved, hopefully most especially for the boys.

Zucchini for a nose and tomatoes for eyes

Lilian asked about my garden. Ah yes. A couple days ago I gave it a heavy pruning. The Painter and I have taken to walking the neighborhood with a LARGE aluminum bowl full of tomatoes and zucchini to distribute to any neighbors willing to have them. Three times in the past week, mind you! I've been harvesting 2-3 pounds of tomatoes, and a similar amount of zucchini, each day. I have 30 (count them 30!) canned quarts of tomatoes, as well as about 4 quarts of ratatouille, 4 quarts of spaghetti meat sauce, 3 quarts of goulash, several quarts of soups (vegetable-barley, and chicken-vegetable), and a few canned carrots and zucchini. The freezer contains four or five gallon ziplocs of parboiled zucchini and another couple gallon ziplocs of beans. The fridge is overflowing with carrots, as well as pickled zucchini and green tomatoes. The worms in my worm bin have been eating too well, so I thought the neighbors ought to benefit from my harvest a bit.

And, as a boon, we've gotten some great lemons and grapefruits in the bargain (in exchange from grateful neighbors). We've got some limes of our own, and the oranges threaten to ripen within the next month. So... I gave the tomatoes a heavy pruning (and bought a few more cages to tame the wild ones. The pepper plants are finally starting to produce (but not yet in overwhelming numbers). There are occasional cucumbers, which are nice. And there's a small honeydew about 4 inches in diameter at this point that looks yummy.

Last night we had some grilled fish, and the four acorn squash the garden gave forth (the vines died back, so I suppose that's all). They were delicious. Tonight, I made a fresh gazpacho (zucchini, tomato, cucumber, peppers, a little bit of onion and garlic, some lemon and lime juice, a dash of sour cream, and a sprinkling of cilantro) for dinner. The Painter, quite to my surprise devoured it, and said Daddy, it's good! I was charmed (even though The Inventor had only a taste).

Other than a drawer full of young zucchini (I figure if I pick them small they might be more manageable) and a counter full of tomatoes, we're mostly caught up with our eatings. Except, I think tomorrow I'll find a use for beans.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Am I setting myself up?

I am quite absorbed these days in my research, in trying to solve some logistical problems of manipulating the data in the sorts of ways I will find useful, in analyzing it, and comparing it, finding patterns, qualifying and quantifying those patterns. And most of all, in testing my hypotheses.

I go to sleep at night thinking about these things, and awake in the morning with them on my mind. Sometimes, I rise at 4:00 or 5:00 to scribble some notes in the lab notebook I keep in preparation for the day I draft up a patent application. I am close, I feel. And yet...

I am still very much on my own, afraid in a sense to seek out too much extensive help. In part this is because I don't want to seem the fool. The bane of the interdisciplinary: you never know if what you consider a difficult problem hasn't already been solved by another field; you never know if what appears to you as profound is not trivial to those expert in some discipline.

But part of this is simply because I wish to protect my ideas until I'm ready to share them. To protect them as ideas, until I've tested and proven them.

I look at the job listings in academia in the discipline of my PhD with complete lack of enthusiasm. "Assistant Professor of..." That doesn't really feel like me anymore. I think of prepping for the upcoming term for my classes as adjunct with the same lack of excitement.

Perhaps this is a sign of my heart. I went back to grad school for the PhD largely at the urging of my wife. I had completed a Master's, moved from Texas to Colorado to follow her in her new job, and sought a means to contribute to our income. I performed, and taught privately and at a community college. Each time I contemplated chucking it all, and seeking a manager's post at a bookstore or some such, Rocket would remark but that's not what keeps you up at night; that's not what puts a sparkle in your eye as you expound on some idea or another. Indeed!

And that sparkle is back! I'm excited, energized. I've got that passion once again. In ways I've come back to what I was hoping to find in my PhD (which I didn't). I feel much of the time was wasted, taking classes that were irrelevant to my real research, writing papers that had nothing to do with my interests, working hard to prove myself in that discipline, when my heart has always led me to new territory, lying between the borders of disciplines. Not any disciplines mind you, nor interdisciplinarity for its own sake.

No, my questions are fairly specific. They simply aren't served by any established discipline. They cross boundaries. They're not better than other people's questions. They're just mine. It's not that I disdain disciplinarity, it's simply a matter of finding the means to answer the questions that inflame my mind.

But I wonder, I fear: am I just setting myself up to fail? Am I really prepared to sit out this season of academic job applications? I keep looking at the listings, wondering if I'll regain some interest in them, if some posting won't pique my interests. I'm jaded at the moment, worn down from all the applications and rejection, like a once-jagged stone smoothed down by the relentless water-motion of a stream.

I'm like that fish out of water, who flopped himself upon the shore to see if another stream might not lie a little ways off. I'm tired of this stream; it's all too familiar, and seems to lead nowhere. If only I can flop myself into the next stream, I might find new adventures. But what if... what if I don't make it?

Monday, July 16, 2007

The downside of up

The downside of being an entrepreneur researcher on the cusp is that much of what I feel most excited by in my research, and its potential for practical applications, is what I need most keep secret.

I've been reading through "Nolo's Patents for Beginners" and their 8th Edition "Patent, Copyright & Trademark" (Looks like they've just come out with a 9th edition).

I've been trying to follow the mantra I've heard from various sources "protect your ideas". Develop them, yes! But also protect them. In part, this sense of protection grows from my professional isolation. Had I been granted a tenure-track post right out of grad school (or even starting a year or two later) I might never have worried much about it. I'd have felt supported, and much more willing to simply give of my work.

It's not that I want to horde it. It's simply that I wish to reap some of the benefits of the work personally, for me, for my family. Remember, I've gotten virtually nothing for that PhD. I'm disappointed that it means so much less than I expected, at least in my field. There are simply too many damned PhDs out there, many (if not most) of whom really haven't contributed anything new to the field, to knowledge and understanding. They've simply dug up some obscurity that had been previously overlooked. And it's often these folks who get the jobs.

Sure, I'm still a little bitter. But I've taken the bit out my mouth, and set it aside. I think of the comment I heard from a faculty member (who wasn't on my committee) whom I had shown my original dissertation proposal to. He remarked on one of my goals expressed in one of the latter chapter outlines, "You say here, you want to discuss the relevance of the work. That's not something we ask in this field. What's the relevance of Mozart's choice of B-minor in this piece? It's not an interesting question."

I still shudder at his comment. Because I deeply feel that we bloody well ought to ask what the relevance is of our work. If not, what's the point? Suffice it to say, I didn't write a dissertation about Mozart's choice of B-minor in any piece. Relevance was important in my efforts, and even more so today.

I must tread lightly, protect my ideas. I want them to have an impact on society. That's the whole point for me.

I suppose I'm unenthusiastic about my imminent teaching because it seems what I'll be teaching will have little to do with relevance, with the research I'm engaged in, which I begin to see as my "real work". Getting through this next year, finding focus, maintaining it: those will be my challenges.

Monday, July 9, 2007

More of the same (only different)

In the 1980s, Nabisco unveiled a memorable television ad campaign for their "Ritz Bits". As I remember, it featured an adorable 5-6 year old girl explaining the product concept to her father. After a brief but involved explanation, she says something along the lines of "So, it's the same, only different, see?"

Rocket and I revisit our plans quite often, having a dinner date, meandering through a local park, sitting on the couch. We revisit our strategies, our hopes, and desires, and our obligations. You'd think after several years of this (we've been seeking some grounding since before I finished my dissertation early in 2005), we'd have settled it all. But then, life is more exciting this way. Truth is, each time we discuss these seemingly same things, they appear different. At least, the specifics of the questions and answers vary. Sometimes, it seems we get nowhere. At others, it seems the landscape changes dramatically. Last night was more the latter.

Coming on the heels of a family vacation however, it's best to evoke caution before hasty decisions. We did confirm our likely time frame though, which gives us time to rethink this all again. Number three is due to arrive early February 2008. The most likely scenario is we will remain in our current circumstance until next Spring, a couple months after the baby is born.

Last night, Rocket said something new, perhaps something that formed as she spoke the words. I don't really want to start a new job with a six-month old. Simple words... but what do they mean? We spent a bit of time talking it through, asking questions, listening to answers, reflecting, interpreting.

I had said that perhaps we should simply act as-if we would move for her work, (somewhere I could continue to build my vision, and possibly pick up teaching at a local college or university) rather than keep up hope of finding me a full-time tenure-track university job in a location where she could also work. I said that I've become excited by the prospects of building a business out of my research. But..., she uttered. What a meaningful conjunction!

She said that what she thinks she'd really like to do, is take a couple years off, to spend more time with the boys (and #3), and to pursue other creative (non-engineering) enterprises. Quite a revelation. And... I came to articulate the irony that now though I have a part-time teaching gig (thought a 2+2 isn't significantly less than a full load), and the prospect that it could turn into a tenure-track job in a couple years, I find myself less and less enthusiastic about becoming a professor, and more and more drawn to being an entrepreneur.

It's always been about the ideas for me. In a sense, I suppose that means the research more than teaching. I never really wanted to choose. I wanted both. I like teaching. Rocket recently described herself: I love my family, I like my job, I don't like the commute (in that order). Hmmm. I love the research, I like teaching. If I must choose...

See, up to now, I haven't been given a choice, only denied one. Now, I'm faced with the prospect of applying for yet another season's worth of postings. And I have no desire to make myself up, to appear the character for the part. I've already got a role to play. But if that's my attitude, I think there will only be a few (if any) postings I ought even to attempt.

What she wants is to take time off from work. What I want is to build a business on the foundation of my research. The only trick is figuring out the logistics to make it so!

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Family diet

Ah, back from our trip to the inlaws. The week went by fairly quickly. Mostly we had a good time. The big stress from the trip was the Painter's eating habits. I think he managed to get through the entire week with about 2 portions of fruits/vegetables. Mostly, he ate breads, a little bit of meat, and chips.

One afternoon we were visiting his great-grandmother, who seemed terribly concerned that he would starve. She had a spread of cold-cuts and side dishes. The Painter willfully refused everything, except, what he seemed to really want was a roll with mayonnaise. Um... no! Frankly, Rocket & I were half tempted to just give him a bowl of mayonnaise, and let him have at it. But we resisted. And so did he. Okay, don't eat!

But that tactic was anathema to great-grandma. She was terribly concerned. As we were preparing to depart (you know it takes at least an hour to really leave a visit to family), she asked if maybe he'd eat a ham sandwich then (we don't keep kosher). I doubt it, but you can surely suggest it. I won't stop you.

So, she did, and when he refused, she offered (with her thick German accent) some chili on bread. Oh, I thought, yeah, that's a face-saving maneuver. Maybe he'll eat some chili. What's chili? he asked. She turned to me, what do you call chili? What, cham? You want some cham on bread!?

Oh my god, she didn't just do that, did she? A-yup. So... he gets himself instead of a little bit of hunger that might teach him a lesson, half a roll with a fat smattering of her homemade currant jam! What's worse, she promised him if he ate his jelly-bread, he could have a big slice of cake.

I was incensed. Once he finished, I ran interference as he was trying to sneak into her kitchen. Then, I had the very uncomfortable duty of contradicting great-grandma in her own house. No, I can't let him have that. Jelly-bread isn't exactly a well-balanced meal. But we can take some cake along, so he can taste it if he has a good meal tomorrow.

Ah, to be home again, in my own kitchen! I think we'll have mostly a vegetarian week. First night back, we stopped for sushi on the way home. He devoured the edamame, and vegetable tempura, and the avocado on his favorite caterpillar roll. A sushi restaurant is the one place we know he'll eat well and healthy.

This morning, I made my signature mango-banana pancakes:
  • 2 cups of blended fruit
  • 1-3/4 cups milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 2-1/2 cups bread flour
  • 1/2 c. wheat flour
  • 1-3/4 tbs. baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
Blend up wet ingredients. Mix dry ingredients in a mixer (or by hand in a large bowl). Slowly pour in the wet, stirring constantly, until well mixed. Fry in a large pan (I use butter) over med-med/high heat. Flip when batter no longer fills in the holes made by popped bubbles. Cook on second side for 2-4 minutes. Transfer cooked pancakes to a warm serving plate in the oven at ~250F.

I always finish with one large pancake from the final remains of the batter bowl, scraped down with a rubber spatula. This I call the family pancake, which is duly cut into equal parts for each family member at the table.

It's good to have control over my family's diet once again (at least, as much control as any parent of a preschooler has)!