Small change is ok

I can’t stop rape by myself, but I can refuse to tolerate inappropriate and disrespectful behavior from the men (and women) in my classes.  I can show students resources, and issues, and hope to inspire a new generation of activists.

I can’t fix the American education system, but I can tutor and give scholarships.  And I can fix math anxiety in my own students.  I can present them with research about the advantages of a growth mindset.

I can’t fix the problems with unwanted animals in the country, but I can donate to shelters and save a couple of kitties.  Of course, we have our own fixed, too.

I can’t feed the world, or give everybody books to read, but I can donate to the local food shelter and local book program.

While it’s true that where you live and what you drive will have bigger impacts on your wallet and on the planet than the latte factor, if the latte factor is all you feel able to address right now, start with that.

Some flossing is better than none; it’s not quite but almost as good as daily flossing.

Writing 1 sentence a day may be a suboptimal way to write a paper, but it’s hella better than waiting for the perfect time or inspiration, and sometimes it leads to an entire paragraph.  Boice is all about this with his daily sessions.  15 min of writing is better than none and leads to greater things.

All-or-nothing thinking leads to burnout, discouragement, apathy.  One thing at a time.

Snowball your debt– even small contributions will add up over the long term when you have high interest.

Instead of the bestest blog post ever, we’ll post this one now, so you can all start the conversation with us.

I sound pretty disgustingly hopeful here, eh?

Some days you dismantle patriarchy; other days, the most radical action you have energy for is turning off the TV.

What radical action did you do today?

What would make you quit a TT job mid-semester?

Just curious.

Do you know anybody who has quit a tenured or tenure-track job mid-semester.  Do you know why?  How did that work out?

We have to make a living…


I know y’all feel me out there in academia.  This year I have the pleasure of sitting on 2 search committees and a personnel committee, all within my department, which is in between chairs, and the interim chair doesn’t respect me.  And I hate my classes.  So far, there is a temporary contrast effect where my salary keeps me from leaving, for now… but the job conditions have me on the market (and the dean, too!).

At least I got a raise with tenure… at least I got the tenure bump… at least I have tenure….

#2 notes that she starts bright and early at 8am teaching a math class!  Also, she hasn’t gotten her contract letter for the year yet.  And she has no idea how many department searches her department will be doing, but at least now she has two interim administrators in addition to the non-interim provost (still no word on the interim president).  Oh, and after she completely reconfigured her class homework assignments etc. (but before writing down the changes on paper), the university reverted her blackboard page to what it was 2 years ago, two days before her first 8am class.  Thank you university!

Commiserate in the comments.

So much to do! A busy summer ahead

OMG, I am so overextended this summer, but if I can pull it off, it will be AWESOME.

What happened, in case you’re wondering, is that I submitted a bunch of short-term grants and got three of them.  On top of that, there’s regular submitted papers coming back from journals and so on.

So I have 4 big projects that need major work for the summer.  Mentally I’m only capable of keeping track of two or three, so this is going to need extra organization.

I have:

1.  The R&R paper that is getting split into 2 papers (a small one for the journal I sent it to, and a regular-sized one for the journal I’m sending the main paper to).

2.  Restricted data project for which only I am allowed to touch the data.  I was supposed to have access to these data last summer but SNAFU FUBAR @##@.  But I have it now, and am going to need to get a no-cost extension to keep it.

3.  Pilot study needs to get done for grant proposal for big grant.  Coauthor moved slowly so we’re behind schedule.   Lab manager graduated.  New lab members.  Do not want to talk about the weeks of administrative SNAFUs.

4.  Stupid NSF thing I got added to for the $.

[update]:  #5.  Mildly crappy paper that I sent into a conference got accepted unexpectedly.  I guess I passed the threshold from being accepted too infrequently to being accepted too frequently, at least in some venues.  No more crappy submissions to this conference in the future!  It’s going to be hard getting an hour and 15 min talk out of the material.

I have a small army of RAs of varying quality to manage, including one guy who just got a low C on the final for his methods class.  Damn it.  He did well on the midterm, but ugh.  Fortunately he won’t be working the entire summer.

So, that’s my story.  I’m doing Dame Eleanor‘s thingy for #1, and I’ve got RAs to keep me going for 3 and 4 and a coauthor whose sabbatical is ending for #2.  Who needs sleep or weekends?

Do some people *want* to be miserable?: A deliberately controversial post

We’re just curious.

We see some folks do the same negative repeating behaviors over and over again and we don’t understand it.  Complaining about the same things.  And not just addictive stuff.

Sometimes they group together and encourage others to wallow too so there’s a mutual complain and enable-fest.  Sometimes they take turns.  Sometimes they talk over each other.  However they communicate though, it seems to encourage the misery rather than taking it away.

We don’t get it.  When we complain we want to vent and then to find a solution after we’ve calmed down.  We want to be happy.

We all get hit with bad things from time to time, some of us more than others.  But some folks seem to be able to manufacture their own bad luck, or to react incredibly strongly to things most of us are just mildly annoyed by.  How people react to negative events seems really important.

We want to be around people who want to be happy.  We like people who have growth mind-sets.

We understand that sometimes people have chemical depression, and we’re all for therapy and FDA-approved (and psychiatrist-monitored) pharmaceuticals as needed.  Please get professional help if you need it!

#2 would like to note that there is a time and place for shared misery, particularly in grad school and in the early tenure-track.  But there are ALSO times to stop moaning and do your writing.  Structured groups are good for this: first hour bitch-n-moan, second hour hard work, then break for snack, more work, a closing few minutes of social time, etc.  Commiseration is useful sometimes, but it must be backed up with productivity if you’re going to survive.  My good friend in grad school pointed out that we had “a culture of stress” and that it wasn’t necessarily the most helpful.

We gotta wonder though, if you’re hanging out with people who seem to enjoy being miserable, and seem to enjoy encouraging you when you’re making bad choices (that will cause misery down the road) or just being miserable (and discourage you from making choices that could reduce the misery)… why are you doing that?  And can you explain it to us?

What the Most Successful People do at Work: A Book Review

Laura Vanderkam sent us her new e-book, “What the most successful people do at work.”

As with all of Ms. Vanderkam’s writing, this was a very easy read.  She’s got the Malcolm Gladwell thing down.  (Well, maybe not Malcolm Gladwell… there’s not quite as much suspense, but she has breezy edutainment down cold.)

The book touches upon a number of topics about productivity.  Unfortunately, it just touches upon them, giving a vivid example from a single case study for each idea, and maybe another from her own life, but in most cases not going into any depth about how universal each of these ideas is.  And it turns out there’s a lot of research out there on psychology.

Early on, she talks about getting in the zone.  There’s been books written on how to get there and what it means to get there, only instead of calling it “in the zone,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term, “flow.”  Laura V. is a far better writer than Mihaly C., and we’d love to see her do his material justice.

(#2 thinks C. is a fine writer!  #1 had a hard time with one of them– the other was easier, but not what one would call fun.  V. books are actually fun.)

Understanding sunk costs is a basic concept of productivity from economics– don’t throw good money (or time!) after bad.  Understanding them can also help productivity by keeping you from lingering emotionally.

The idea of a planning period also has research and randomized controlled trials to back it up.  Our favorite productivity researcher, Robert Boice, talks about the importance of planning and schedules and routines or habits.  And, of course, there’s the new best-selling book on The Power of Habit out there.  Something that should be noted that isn’t included in the research… whenever you’re working with other people, they will often drop the ball.  So it’s important to have secondary plans.

One chapter that’s completely missing from this ebook is the research on creativity:  the need for regular breaks to allow your subconscious to puzzle things out.  The breaks may be mentioned, but there’s hard science and reasons why, and not just about Willpower (another recent best seller) or energy levels.

The chapter on meetings had good ideas, but was a little disorganized.

I am reminded that I should do more networking.

The book’s discussion of progress on a goal brought to mind Virginia Valian’s solving a work problem.  (And, of course, there’s a huge dry psychology literature on goal setting, that we bet Laura Vanderkam could sex up.)

The book ends suddenly– a page or even a paragraph summing things up would make it seem longer!

Overall, I felt like this book was only the article portion of something that could be a real book.  It felt a lot like the book prospectuses I occasionally review for publishers.  It left me wanting Ms. Vanderkam to write a real book on productivity.  Something that ties all the research out there together into one magnum opus, but an opus no longer or more difficult to read than say, NurtureShock, with a chapter dedicated to each idea.

Such a book will require research.  And there’s a lot of research on productivity out there.  Best-selling recent books on Habit and Willpower are only the tip of the iceberg.

As she says, it’s priced at ebook novelette price, not full book price.  But I think she’s got a $24.95  (or $13.95 if you buy from Amazon) book in there that isn’t just a “What the most successful people” compilation.  So, yes, it’s well worth $3.99 (Buy it!), but it will leave you wanting something more substantial.   And I do think she’s the right person to give us that more substantial best-selling book on productivity.

Would you buy an in-depth book on productivity by Laura Vanderkam?  One that translates the academic research into real action items you can use?

Why do I do this to myself? A research rant!

Why do I put projects down and not pick them up forever?

I spend so much fricking time trying to figure out what I was doing a year, two years, five years ago.

A lot of this is my coauthors’ fault.  I hate nagging and other coauthors don’t, so I’m often low on the queue.  And sometimes there will be something they have to do that I can’t do.  And months will pass.

But… that doesn’t explain why I do this to myself on single-authored papers too.

And I always swear to myself that this time I will leave myself better notes.  More complete files with better comments.   Ugh.  Unfortunately whatever it was that caused me to put something down often keeps me from putting it away neatly too.

One benefit of having to figure out what the heck it was I was doing– I often find mistakes.  But really, I’d prefer to find those mistakes in a faster way.

#2 chimes in:

Cripes, I do that too!  I have so many things that are around 85% done.  All the hard part is done!  If I just put in a few hours, fewer than 10, I can send this stuff out for publication by the end of this month.  But yet, I don’t do it!

There are various reasons for this.  Sometimes, I stall out when I don’t know what to do next.  Instead of asking for help like a reasonable being, I try to pretend nothing’s wrong.  I have some fear that the project somehow isn’t right, in some way (not rigorous enough?  stats not correct?), and that reviewers will, I don’t know, laugh at me.  This is silly because peer review, whether through a journal submission or  just asking colleagues for informal feedback, will catch existing problems and make the paper better.  Maybe those problems aren’t even there and I’m just imagining them!

Maybe I have a fear of success.  If this article is great, I have to keep producing great things!  What if the next one isn’t as good, or I can’t get the next one done?  I better hold on to this one in case I need a submission for next year.  (??!!?!?!?!?)

Sometimes, I get distracted.  For example, I have to get my RAs started on data collection for the next project, and that takes a lot of time and energy, and I don’t make it a priority to finish writing the previous paper.  I’m dumb like that.

Sometimes, it’s just hard work and I’m tired.  In my head, I have found great results and know what they mean.  Or found not-great results and I’m already working on a follow-up study that fixes this one’s limitations.  Taking the extra time to explain complex results for an audience can be tedious.

Sometimes, I can’t face the thought of all the work still to come.  I can submit for publication and forget about the paper for a while… yay!  But then I might get a revise-and-resubmit, and have to do YET MORE work on this project that I am mentally done with, and that would be tedious.  Or I could not do the revisions, and send it somewhere else.  This works a surprising number of times.

On the upside: A pre-tenure push to clear the backlog has really paid off for me.  But I need to try not to get such a backlog in the first place.

Grumpy readers, please smack us upside the head and tell us to stop being dorks, ok?  Also, send cookies. (Do you do this kind of stuff too?)

Ask the grumpies: Developing confidence

Liz asks:

How does one develop confidence after-the-fact? Specifically, I’m coming from a perspective of having grown up being called “perfect” all the time, yet having a mother who nit-picks and tells me what I like/don’t like and is passive-aggressive… I’ve found it’s hard to develop confidence coming from these two positions (afraid to not be perfect, afraid to do anything because it will be wrong). Any advice would be great.

rented life adds:

Riffing off that, how do you develop confidence when you’re good at things other people expect you to do but your true goals lie somewhere else. ex: if I’d rather write fiction and/or be a stay at home mom, but have parents that I love but put “Jobs that make a difference” ahead of everything and haven’t expressed much confidence in my ability to parent –no kids yet, but somehow how I treat my cats reflects how I will parent???. I know it’s easy to say just do it, but that advice falls a little flat.

#1:  I got nothin except “Your parents might be jerks”

#2: Many of us grow up wanting to please our parents.  When we’re adults it can be hard to let go of that.  Especially those of us who skipped the traditional teenage rebellion stage.  (I suspect #1 worked through this dilemma as a teenager.)

At some point you have to divorce yourself from caring about your parents’ opinions of you.  For me that happened in graduate school when I was clinically depressed.  At a point I realized that a. all the stuff I thought my parents expected of me, they really didn’t.  I exceeded their expectations.  I wasn’t disappointing anybody but myself.  That was kind of a revelation.  (For DH it was the night of our rehearsal dinner when he overheard his parents telling mine how proud they were of him.  He’d had no idea.)  b.  my parents have their own faults and their own misperceptions (some of which I can enumerate…).  They’re just flawed people like everybody else and they don’t know me as well as I know me.  So when my mom nags my sister to get a law degree or a masters degree, well, that’s just silly given how much money she’s making without either.  c.  You’re living your life for you, not for them.  That’s true whether they’re wonderful but smothering parents or nit-picky passive-aggressive types (I actually have one of each, but don’t tell my mom I said that, and she’s not really as smothering in reality as she was in my head).  They have their own lives to live, and if they’re not busy enough, suggest that they start training guide-dog puppies.

Cognitive restructuring, which is a part of cognitive behavioral therapy, is a great way to build confidence in your reality and thus in you.  There are a lot of different techniques to change how you feel by changing how you think.  The general idea is to force yourself to replace an untrue thought with a true thought, or a negative frame with a truthful and positive reframe.  One technique is to get out a sheet of paper, divide it in half lengthwise, then on the left put the negative thought.  On the right next to it, put the truth.  “I can’t do X” on the left, “I don’t know if I can do X unless I’ve tried it, and I’ve shown that I can do Y.  Even if I can’t do X, the world won’t end” on the right.  The negativity jar we talked about earlier is another technique.

Part of that cognitive restructuring can be towards giving yourself a growth mindset.  If you’re not the person you want to be, you can become that person.  Or you can change who you want to be.  Everything in life is only for now, to quote Avenue Q.

Moving away also helps.

As does leaving the Catholic church.

Grumpeteers, How do you build confidence, especially when your parental situation has undermined that ability?

Going early and slow

Back when I started this article, people were talking about Race to Nowhere… one of those movies about pressure cooker parents messing up their kids.  (Note:  neither of us, despite our elite circles, has ever actually met someone whose parents pressured them thusly.  We believe they exist, otherwise Amy Chua wouldn’t be, but are by far the minority… or at least don’t actually end up at the elite institutions with which we are familiar… maybe they go to Princeton.  No wait… one of us met a first gen Chinese girl with one of those moms, but she didn’t go to an Ivy for college… just grad school.  The other one of us remembers a couple of pre-meds on her hall in college, also of Asian descent.  But they seemed perfectly fine, except for the not really wanting to be doctors part.)

Of course, on the mommy forums, folks were taking this documentary to mean that kids should not be allowed near a written letter until they are 5 years old at the absolute earliest, and that’s only if you don’t get into the local Waldorf school, in which case age 8 or 9 is better.

The argument seems to be around whether you’re providing your kids with an advantage by “hothousing” them (or as some like to put it, “enabling them to reach their potential”) or by letting them “enjoy their childhoods” (or as I like to say, “be Rosseau dream-children”).  Proponents of the anti-learning model argue that we’re stressing out our kids with all the pressure.   Arguments in the other direction (that I haven’t actually heard made by a real person, just by articles against hot-housing) seem to focus on children getting into ivy schools later in life and becoming successes, whatever that means.

What the arguments seem to ignore is that when you start something early instead of late, the learning can be more leisurely and more fun.  There can be LESS pressure instead of more pressure.  Deadlines are far away and nobody expects a child to show genius at such a young age for task X, Y or Z.  The time can be spent focusing on the learning and the joy, and when it stops being fun, you can take a break and come back to it later, no harm, no foul.  Plus there’s the meta lesson that even if you don’t get something right away, with practice and time you will get it eventually.

We’ve seen the positive aspects of starting early and going slow across several aspects of DC1′s life.

Potty training

Unlike most parents, we found potty training to be pretty fun.  Unlike most parents, we started pretty early.  15 months.  We would have started earlier but before reading the research I thought you had to go all or nothing.  Ze wasn’t completely trained for many years (went a week without accidents right before age 2, was mostly dry before 3, was dry at night before 5).  The joy of starting at 15 months is you feel a bit naughty doing it– people who find out will be more than happy to provide their opinion of why you’re torturing the child or you’re the one being trained, etc.  (To which I would say, “Did you know that before disposable diapers the average age of potty training was 18 months, and in cultures with infant training, the average age of being completely trained is 12 months?  It’s really interesting, the potty readiness signals were created by Barry T Brazelton who was working for Pampers at the time.  They seem to coincide with the worst time to start training.”  You can see I have the speech memorized– as a professor I use people not minding their own business as an opportunity to educate.)

Potty training for us went much like all the other skills.  It was fun watching DC1 get better and better at this new skill.  Very relaxed.  Whenever it wasn’t relaxed we’d just stop.  And that would feel fine too, because the feeling of naughtiness would go away while on break.  Then we’d go back later.


Reading isn’t quite as good an example, because we didn’t deliberately start training DC1 to read (I did read  a couple of books on how to teach infants to read via flashcards, but decided that wasn’t fun and only taught sight reading which isn’t phonics.)  We did, however, read a lot to DC1, and I tend to run my finger along the words as I read children’s books because that’s what my mother did (possibly from her Headstart training).  And we have literally hundreds of children’s books to flip through and chew on, many at baby height.  We also introduced the Leapfrog CDs long before DC1 could decode because DC1 was really into frogs at that age.  The side effect of that was that ze knew all the phonics rules (in verse form, “The A says ah, the A says ah, every letter makes a sound the A says ah”) so that as soon as hir brain was ready for phonics, the inputs were already there.  On top of that, we have some great simple puzzles that attach words to pictures or letters to words and pictures.  These worked so well that we hope to do the same for DC2 even if ze isn’t as into frogs as hir older sibling.


I love math and I love teaching math, so math is something we start right away, counting baby lifts and baby fingers and toes and ears and eyes and noses.  Numbers are everywhere and we point them out.  Following that, any kind of manipulable can teach simple addition (two raisins plus two raisins is one two three four raisins).  Skip counting is also a lot of fun.  We practice these kinds of games when we’re waiting for things, even if it means I occasionally get dirty looks.  Better dirty looks for “hothousing” than for my kid getting stuck in the slats of a chair yet again.  Later on we added workbooks and money games from Scholastic books.

We’re totally Boicing our kids.


There are some disadvantages besides the occasional dirty look and accusation of doing horrible things to your children in order to win at life or something.  Sometimes the whole point of learning something new is learning to overcome a new challenge.  When learning is easy and happens over a long period of time, and doesn’t have those frustrations that a deadline will bring, the child may be missing that important lesson.  Additionally, when a child knows something that hasn’t yet been taught in school, that can lead to boredom when it is finally covered.  Though perhaps the boredom is a societal problem, not because of us.

[Disclaimer:  We do not recommend trying CIO-style sleep training or solid feeding earlier than what doctors recommend-- baby brains and baby tummies aren't ready for those until about the date the AAP recommends or they show signs of readiness.  Of course, anyone knows that trying to feed a baby who doesn't want to be fed is not fun for mom and dad, and CIO generally isn't ever fun.  So if you keep to the rule of only doing things early if they're fun for all, you should be ok.]

Anyway, my point is that introducing something early doesn’t necessarily lead to pressuring.   In fact, sometimes it keeps you from ever having to pressure.

How do you make choices about when to introduce new concepts?  What did your parents do?

Sunk costs and moderating emotional upsets

One of the best things about being an economist is understanding sunk costs.

Sunk cost is the idea that you can’t change the past.  What’s done is done.  How much effort you put in or what you spent in the past shouldn’t matter in your decision making.  All that matters is where you are now at this point in time and what the costs and benefits are in the future.  Compare the future costs and benefits, not the future plus the past.

The canonical example given: It is raining and you had a hard day at work.  You have tickets for a basketball game that you were looking forward to, but now you’re not so sure.  Should your answer about whether to go or not depend on how much you paid for the tickets?

If you understand sunk costs, then the answer should be no.  The costs of driving in the rain and not going to bed early should be weighed only against the pleasure you get from going to the event.  Your answer should be no different if you paid $60 for the tickets or if your sister got them for you from her fancy corporate job (right before you were about to purchase them yourself).  Most people don’t understand sunk costs, not even rationally.  (In fact, some folks may want to argue with me in the comments– knock yourselves out!)

Even though I rationally understand sunk costs, sometimes I have to be reminded.  It’s like when I went into labor with DC1 and my mom said, “Shouldn’t you be breathing or something?”  Oh yeah, breathing.  That made things a lot less painful.

Most recently… I’ve been working on a paper off and on for an embarrassingly long time.  Finally someone else decided to scoop me on it.  I need to get the damn thing out before they get published.  Soon.  When I found out I was a mess… I have spent WAY too much time on the paper, much of it going down blocked alleyways.  And it was almost done two years ago and I put it down again.  It could have been out two years ago and then I wouldn’t be being scooped.

DH says magic phrase, “sunk costs.”

Oh yeah.  Sunk costs.  All that matters is what I do now, which is less work because I just need to incorporate the things from my (cough 2009 cough) power point into the paper, smooth it up, and send it out.  And hey, that’s less work on a paper that I’m frankly quite sick of than I would have to do if I wanted to get it into a better journal.

Truly understanding sunk costs can help a person stop being emotionally blocked, and enable a person to move forward.  Have no regrets, take what you can learn, and move on.

Not that I’m not kicking myself in t-1 (also t-3, and t-7), but what can you do?  Nothing.  Just move forward.


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