A Resolution-less New Year

First of all, I started writing this post in preparation for the 2016 New Year. Let that sink in. That is epic procrastination! A lot has changed in a year and yet most of this still applies from 2016.

Rather than focusing on the my new year’s resolutions (a post for another day…or year), I’m going to take the opportunity to talk about what didn’t make the list of resolutions. These are things that I have de-prioritized in order to make room for more essential things like, for example, sanity. It’s more than that though. In choosing what not to classify as a resolution I am making choices about what I consider the real priorities in my life. It’s been a helpful exercise and here is what I came up with. These are the things I won’t do in 2016…er…I mean 2017.

  1. Blog weekly.  For me this blog is equal parts community engagement and therapy through self-expression. However the pressure of writing a weekly blog became overwhelming. So this year I am trying to blog when I can and let myself off the hook the rest of the time.
  2. Try a new thing every month. Last year this was my resolution. It turned out ok. I tried climbing at an indoor climbing gym, trying new types of cuisine, and I even counted giving birth (by VBAC – another post to come on that experience!). I would say giving birth was the most memorable of them all! Maybe I had the wrong mix of new things to try, but on the whole I didn’t get much out of it. Or maybe I have tried enough new stuff and at this particular point in my life I would rather spend my precious personal time on something I already know that I love (rather than, say, Bud Light Lime. Yegh.).
  3. Card making. This was a hobby gone wrong. I started in 2013 to cope with the stress of graduate school and having my first son. It was at that point a fun way to work with my hands and be away from computer screens and the baby. I ended up being the go to person any time a greeting card was needed (which is often!) I just last week made another 12 Valentine’s Day cards for my son’s preschool – which took all Sunday afternoon and was a total chore. This year I am going to send my hubby to Hallmark instead! I’ll continue to make cards iff (i.e. If and only if) I feel like it!
  4. Cook every day. Ugh. This one is so hard. I want to force myself into a resolution to cook dinner daily, but it’s too much. I do not have time for my fantasy of buying market fresh food daily and cooking it. That dream is illogical for my life. Even splitting the cooking with my hubby we just don’t have time to cook every day. So far this year we have taken two positive steps. Instead of ordering food we have subscribed to Blue Apron. It’s a service that sends ingredients and a recipe that takes about 30 minutes to cook. I do 2 dinners a week this way. My husband batch cooks on Sunday which usually covers two more week days. Friday’s we usually order food, although occasionally we eat out (with two kids this frequency has been downgraded to that of planetary alignment!).
  5. Renovate/remodel the house. I had a wonderfully long and ambitious list for our new house (we moved in last October). We are still on item 1 – a DIY bathroom renovation. I’m officially burning the rest of the list until we a) finish the bathroom, b) can afford to pay someone else to do the other renovation projects or c) accept and enjoy how things are rather than worrying about upgrading (this is rapidly becoming my favorite option!).
  6. Be more politically active. I had high hopes for myself at the end of 2016. I even managed to march in 2017, and I may again at least one more time this year. But for my mental health I need to compartmentalize political activism. News fatigue is very real and I am starting to feel it. US politics is straining my family relationships and I can’t begin to unpack how this will impact my 4 year old. So I am not going to resolve to be very active politically. I will do what I can (donate, march, make calls on occasion to my representatives) and keep it within reason. I will devote my activism instead toward creating a science research lab where all students can feel welcome and engaged. I’ll also try to instill my values in my sons. That alone feels like a tall order when I can’t even get my oldest to stop picking his nose. Ugh.

 So that is my plan…or my un-plan. What will you NOT resolve to do this year? 

‘Historical legibility’ for women’s iniatives

I was lucky enough to have some time today to spend at a workshop for women’s leadership. At that meeting there was a great talk centering on the many steps women have taken, specifically at my institution but I took it to also mean more broadly, towards advancing equality of women in the workplace. It’s easy to forget and it’s so important to remember. This is what historical legibility means – as I understood it. You have to be able to trace the historical legacy and know what has been done so that we can move forward. Otherwise you end up reinventing the wheel again and again.

I was moved today and genuinely grateful for so many women that came before me and fought the good fight to gain access to leadership positions and represent women’s interests. Occasionally I have thought about how far women have come in society in a relatively short period of time, but today’s talk really hammered that home. The speaker also mentioned  some ways that women are still left out of opportunities because of ‘gendered culture.’ For example, women not getting to speak with donors because they mainly meet out on the golf course and discuss terms in the locker room. My favorite quote from the talk was, “Enough with the golf!” Given the history of golf clubs in this country there are all kinds of gender, racial, and religious biases associated with the sport. I definitely saw her point!

Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for all of the workshops but I did get to hear the personal account of a woman that worked for 3 years to get the raise she deserved. After trying over and over to get paid for the work she was doing that was beyond her job description she basically had to give an ultimatum. Either pay me the raise or I am going to stop doing this extra work. I thought to myself – can you do that? Won’t you get in trouble?? And maybe this is part of the problem. Part of what I’ve been taught is to follow rules and to be subservient. I don’t know that I could have done what she did. I do know that I am so grateful for all the women “troublemakers” that got women in this country to the point where we don’t all have to fight so hard for opportunities! Now let’s take it global!

Welcome, Wren!

It has been almost a year since my last post. Not blogging has actually become a new source of guilt – as if a working mom needs another one of those! Instead of feeling guilty I decided to just write a quick entry. What better way to kick off a mommy blog entry than with the great news that I had a baby!

Welcome Wren James! Wren is my second son and is basically an angel! He sleeps, he takes a bottle, he giggles and coos…did I mention he sleeps!

I am happy to say that I had Wren as a VBAC – which was a personal goal of mine. I was really happy with the whole birth experience. It was a long labor (is 80 hours long? Uh yeah.) but worth it!

Miles loves his little brother and never fails to kiss him gooodnight.

I took four weeks to cuddle and enjoy that new baby smell. Then I started working again – mostly from home at first, but gradually have gotten back to being at the University every day. More on that later. Suffice to say it has been a fantastic year. I’m looking forward to 2017!

How much screen time is too much?

baby-with-ipad-4It has happened. Degree by degree, minute by minute – television shows, apps, and e-books have become a daily part of life for my 2 year old. I think it started with his nanny (as a mom, it’s always easier to blame the nanny ;)). She would sit him to watch nursery rhyme videos and Pocoyo. I pushed back – not seeing the purpose for a 9 month old   to see any tv. I won the battle, but we are losing the war. Starting from about 18 months (which coincided with the last few months before I defended my dissertation), I would have him watch Wall-E*. Not the whole movie, just 10 minutes here and there, but he LOVED it. Wall-E was among his first 50 words.

How much screen time does he get now? I should know the answer. I know that I should know, but I don’t. In our house there is a tag-team approach to parenting. Mom needs to go to the doctor, TAG – you’re in. Dad needs to run to the market, TAG- you’re in. Mom and dad are going out to dinner, TAG – you’re in, Lolo (Miles couldn’t pronounce ‘abuelo,’ so my dad is now and forever more Lolo). I know that we all on occasion let him watch tv.  I don’t know how much exactly, but maybe….probably…definitely… too much.

This is actually a very confusing part of parenting for me. My relationship with television was…well…let’s put it this way. Television was my third and favorite parent. I have just as many memories of Full House, Saved by the Bell, and My So Called Life episodes than I do of family vacations and one-on-one time with my parents. Actually, who am I kidding. I remember TV way more than anything else. I could much sooner recall every TV show theme song than the elements of the periodic table. I had a small TV in my room starting in middle school. I used to stay up late and watch Nick at Nite. Did it fry my brain and make me unable to concentrate in school? No. Did it keep me from playing sports, doing plays, having friends, etc? No. However, when I think about the cumulative hours of my life spent watching tv, I am not at all proud. I see a huge opportunity cost in time.

TV, videos, and games are even more pervasive on our lives than ever. When Miles is beginning to melt down at a restaurant I can easily play an episode of his favorite show to calm him down. It’s convenient, but not my finest hour as a parent. I guess this must be how our parents felt about Walkmans and Gameboy, and how their parents felt about color tv and Elvis.

Do you have a strict time limit for screens for your kids (or for yourself)? Is there such a thing as TV addiction? How do you think technology is changing the way we watch TV? Have you seen this adorable babies with ipads blog?


* As an aside, there are no scary villains in Wall-e and very little dialog. It’s not exactly educational, but Miles did learn the word ‘plant.’



Taking tests means learning best

Test takingI was forwarded this article (entitled, To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test) as part of an ongoing discussion on active learning for STEM classes. The idea is that active learning is more effective than passive learning. Active learning encompasses a lot of things – but fundamentally switches the focus to the student’s learning by doing.

One way I understand active learning is in comparison to passive learning. Imagine the typical large lecture hall where you sit and passively listen to the professor tell you what you need to know. Have you ever felt your eyes drooping, or maybe even fell asleep during a lecture? The professor might think the information is interesting an engaging, but listening to someone talk at you for an hour can be exhausting. This is likely why even NPR has interludes of punchy music to break up the monotony of talk radio.

The active learning strategy discussed in this article is to have students take tests early and often. Students retained more information after taking several tests than after having one study session or even multiple study sessions. I have to wonder if the stress and adrenaline that accompany test taking for most people plays a critical role in solidifying information retention. There’s nothing like that jittery-about-to-take-a-test feeling – usually it’s combined with caffeine and lack of sleep for me!

When I prepped for the SATs in college and the GRE’s for graduate school, I took practice exams and prep courses in which we took more practice exams. Then I took the SATs 3 times until I got the score I wanted. I studied for the test by taking the test. So for me, at least, I see some merit in this strategy. I also see a downside though, one I am facing right now in teaching introductory statistics.

When you teach through tests, or even through practice problems designed to help students through tests, that is emphasizing that the purpose of the class is to pass a test. This is somewhat limiting. All of the example problems in the world may help a stats student ace the final exam, but they won’t help her design an effective data collection scheme for her class project. They won’t help her figure out how to choose the best figure to illustrate her data, or how to analyze the data. My point is that learning is not ONLY about information retention. It’s also about thinking critically and applying problem solving skills to problems where there isn’t a single solution. We need to start brainstorming more effective ways to have students practice using their creativity to solve important problems – lord knows the world has enough of them to go around.





Are college freshman prepared for STEM classes?

Grading has got to be the worst part about teaching, no contest. It’s so time consuming and, frankly, a bit depressing at times as well. As a teacher I genuinely want all the students to do well. I really want everyone to test well and score high. More importantly, I want to know that these young people are actually absorbing this information.

Right now I am teaching intro statistics for non-majors -a course in how to understand and interpret information. The material seems very basic to me, but I know that after so many years in school and doing research, it’s difficult to have perspective. I try to look at it with fresh eyes and remember it is their first time seeing this stuff. But often I find that there is more of an issue than the newness of the concepts.

One interaction made me realize that what I consider totally basic may be very advanced for some students – even in their first or second year of undergrad. I was in office hours, and explaining the difference between two measures of center – the mean and the median. We were calculating the mean of a bunch of numbers. This is stuff I remember learning in middle school, but here we covering it a bit of a different way – like when is it more appropriate to use the median or the mean in describing different datasets. After I finished my schpeal, the student asked me how you know when to round up or round down. Honestly, I was shocked. I think I hid it well and went on to explain the rules of rounding.

Several other students have asked me similar questions about fundamentals in math such as the order of operations (remember PEMDAS from high school or middle school?). One student even asked how to take the square root of something. These building blocks should have been mastered before starting college, but there is evidence that high schoolers are not well prepared.

What is my responsibility as a college instructor? Am I meant to fill in these gaps? Do I press forward with the material that is meant to be covered? Because of course there are many other students that are ready for all of coursework and then some. At some point a bar must be set.

6 UNsurprising sources of stress

Recently, the Washington Post published an article by Erinn Bucklan on 6 Surprising Sources of Stress – and how to do away with them. I think the word “surprising” must have been added for the sake of alliteration in the title rather than its meaning. There is nothing surprising about this list except that it’s only six items. In the article itself the author use a scientific publication for each item to bolster her arguments – which is a good start. I decided to take a closer look at a couple of them to see if I could round it out a bit.

Top of the list was clutter…I’ll pause while you get over your surprise. Barring those with mental illness (as anyone who has watched an episode of Hoarders knows), no one like clutter. A friend of mind used to say all the time, “messy room, messy mind.” But the jury isn’t out on what this means for workplace productivity. While some evidence suggests clutter can reduce your ability to focus (McMains and Kastner 2011, J. Neurosci), others show that one person’s “clutter” is another’s meaningful and comforting display of self-expression…like your workplace binky. Allowing meaningful personal displays has been shown to increase job satisfaction (Wells 2000, J. Env Psych). I’ve struggled with finding the right balance on my desk. Too tidy and I feel like it’s someone else’s desk. Too messy and I want it to be someone else’s desk. Your office (whether it’s 2 feet of lab bench space or the corner office) is your place, your territory. You have to make it your own to feel comfortable to do good work. Heck, even when I go to the library I make myself at home, so to speak, by spreading out my stuff. I think this is a case of confusing the consequence with the cause. The clutter comes from all the stressful work you are doing. Clearing the clutter may help set the stage, but it won’t empty your inbox or get your papers submitted.

Next was working with high strung people. That can be stressful? Shocker. I didn’t look into the literature for this one much, but I do wonder if the “empathic stress” that comes from working alongside stressball coworkers is as important as the stress that comes from the inevitable conflicts that arise while working with said coworkers. The other thing this made me think of was schadenfreude. According to Avenue Q, this is defined as happiness at the misfortune of others. Like the study cited for this list item, it’s German. Maybe I am a terrible person, but sometimes when I was in the muck and mire of graduate school, seeing my fellow graduate students become unhinged with stress from classes, quals, or just life in general had a positive effect on me. It didn’t necessarily make me less stressed, but it didn’t make me more stressed. More often than not, it gave me perspective. I could say to myself – woah – is that what I am like? I need to take it down a notch and stop taking everything so seriously! Time for a massage (sidebar – I desperately miss the massage places in Buford Highway. Where else can you get a 1 hour foot massage for $20!)

Apparently, being “too composed” can be stressful. The author recommends sharing your feelings with of anxiety or stress with your colleagues or superiors can improve your mood. Should you really be sharing your feelings with your boss? According to research, it depends on the feelings. Several studies have shown that men who express anger at work are conferred a higher status than men who express sadness. It gets even worse for women though. The chairman of the Republican National Committee asserted that Senator Hillary Clinton was too angry to be elected president (Nagourney, 2006). Expressing anger can hurt women’s chances in the workplace – more-so than it does for men (Buscholl & Ulhmann 2008, Psch. Sci).

I wish I had time for more today, but Miles has made a tunnel and he insists that I play too.