Ask the grumpies: Recommendations for post-maternity leave

Slightly Anonymous asks:

My department is writing a policy for what they do to support new parents post-parental leave.  I’m on the committee that is supposed to come up with this.  I think this is great:  if somebody misses a year or a semester with a new baby, then it makes sense that they might need some time or extra support to come back up to speed.  But what should our committee recommend?

I’m wondering if you or any of your readers have ideas?

I’m at a UK university, which means that academic staff at my university are either on short-term temporary contracts — think postdoc — or have permanent positions.  In most UK universities “lecturer” is the equivalent of “assistant professor with tenure.”  At my university there is a 1 year probationary period before your job is officially permanent, but passing probation is pretty much a formality.  There is still stress about being promoted, but much less than what comes with trying to get tenure in a US university.

Being in the US and not having been at coastal or ultra-prestigious schools, our own experience is pretty pathetic.  That whole “missing a year or a semester with a new baby” thing … not something we’re used to.  In my department we’re still trying to get something consistent in place that doesn’t involve begging other people in the department to cover your classes for a couple of weeks after the baby is born.

Off the top of my head, all I can think of is adding a year to the tenure clock for those without tenure, but that is mostly irrelevant in the UK context.  Surely someone out there has a better idea of what best practices are?  #2 has only seen terrible practices.  My poor poor colleagues.

Grumpy Nation, please weigh in with your suggestions!

Ask the grumpies: Dissertation Student from Hades

Stacie asks:

I have this student. She is a PhD student and she gets under my skin! Several months ago I could tell things were not right between us as she was very combative and defensive in class. I tried various ways to figure this issue out in class to no avail. I finally asked for a meeting and honestly felt blind-sided and rail-roaded by her response. When I tried to discuss her behavior, she was quick to retort how she wasn’t the problem, it was me and began to recount my failings [update:  failings were that Stacie is “cold and distant”]. It honestly caught me off guard and I didn’t know how to respond. I ultimately tried to diffuse the situation and talk about how we would work together in the future. I did find out that other students definitely see problems in her behavior in various classes, but have yet to find another professor who will vouch for this. I’ve asked and they say they have no problems with her, but then I hear other students talk about how much this student is being difficult in their classes… (this also drives me crazy!) I talked to my Chair whose overall response to most things seems to be “oh well” so that didn’t really help.

I am really having a hard time keeping my cool around this student who continues to be defensive in class. I am definitely having trouble “teaching others how to treat me” – probably because I don’t like conflict, try to be “nice”, and don’t have great one-liners at the ready to respond to student behaviors.

Yes, I am the newest faculty member, one of the only young females in a mostly senior, male faculty, and have been told I’m the most “human” of any professor we have. (I used to think this was a good thing, but now am not so sure.)

I was wondering if you could help me with how to think about this issue or some phrases I could use regularly with this kind of thing with students or other things I can do to survive this kind of issue. I have a feeling this won’t be my last student who challenges me like this, but I don’t want to always worry or over-think these things. I honestly have some great students, but this one student is the only one I can think about! It drives me crazy!

Well, we don’t have any great advice on this particular student.  Avoiding her completely would be awesome, but it sounds like that might not be an option. Mostly, it sounds like you need a mentor who has handled PhD students at your school for a while and has tenure. They can give you suggestions for the circumstances.  It also sounds like you’ve tried in vain to find such a mentor, and that really sucks.  We’re sorry you’re not getting more support on this.  :(

However, you can also look outside of your department.  Seek out the following resources: 1) talk to the head of the teaching development center at your school, whatever that’s called. (Or teaching & learning, or teaching & Faculty development, etc.) They exist for things like this! 2) talk to your faculty ombudsperson, as they may know more resources and probably have seen similar situations in the past. 3) attempt to get mentoring informally from senior colleagues — if not in your own department then in other departments. You could talk to other people who supervise PhD students, members of the student’s dissertation committee, the Director of Graduate Studies for your department, or the Dean of the Graduate School (or someone in their office). Take them to coffee and ask for advice. It’s good for the future to be friendly with these sorts of people anyway. 4) Outlast the student. Unfortunately this also takes time.

In terms of how to prevent these kinds of things from happening in the future with other students, Teach like a champion is an invaluable resource with tactics that really do work. It isn’t quite as much help for what to do after a problem has started, but it’s great for setting up a professional environment where problems won’t start. We have some posts on teaching tactics from it that you might find helpful if you want to get a taste while waiting to get it from the library.  Maintain control of the classroom, and very strong personal boundaries. Don’t let the turkeys get you down.

Update:  That is an incredibly gendered complaint.  Professors are allowed to be cold and distant and setting boundaries and having a personal bubble helps immensely when you’re a young woman professor.  If you didn’t have such a bubble, students would be complaining about something else because they would perceive you as unprofessional.  There’s no way to win.  Allowing space and distance is the way to go because it isn’t so time intensive or emotionally challenging, even if you get punished for it.

Getting grey hair is also good for reducing student challenges. And experience is great for not letting obnoxious students get to you so much. But those strategies take time.

In the mean time, hopefully the academic part of the Grumpy Nation will chime in with additional suggestions.  We’ll also try to get a signal boost from Historiann to get her always helpful readers.

Ask the grumpies: What kind of mp3 player should I get?

Rented life asks:

I need to buy an MP3 player (not iPod). What do I get?

Because my DH has recently gone through the mp3 player replacement process, I have asked him.

He settled on a SanDisk Sansa Clip. Why? Because it is small, it is ~$60, and it had relatively good reviews on amazon. More expensive mp3 players had somewhat higher reviews, but not high enough to make the price difference worth it, he felt. They still had problems.

It’s great for audiobooks. If you’re an audiophile, he says it’s probably not high enough quality to get the nuances of the music you’re listening to.  He says it will play the higher quality formats but not well.  But if you’re more of a box wine drinker with your music tastes, you should be fine.

He says this is a satisficing sort of quest. If you’re looking for something cheaper, then maybe this, though the reviews are a little odd so maybe not.

DH also wants to recommend these ear foam tips for putting over your ear buds.  He says they’re totally worth the price even though they wear out every six months or so.  They block more outside noise and they seem to make the sound coming from the mp3 player clearer than other earbud tips he has tried.  But, he notes, you have to get the right size, so get the multi-pack first to determine the right size.

That’s all we got. Grumpy Nation, what’s your favorite mp3 player and why? What hasn’t worked for you?

Ask the grumpies: How to say no to trips with crazy people

For those of you who missed this question and following commentary in the last Ask the grumpies solicitation:

CPP asks:

My parents are very toxic people: judgmental, intrusive, manipulative, and demeaning. They behave very poorly in public, especially when it comes to service workers in restaurants, hotels, airlines, stores, etc, whom they treat like absolute shitte–as if they aren’t even fellow human beings. Because of all of this, PhysioWife and I drastically limit the time we spend in their company. They have gotten used to the fact that we visit their home in a sunny place only once per year, staying for four nights. We see them on average about once per month when they are in their other home in our city, generally spending a couple of hours having dinner.

Here’s the question: They are pressing me about PhysioWife and I going on a trip with them to a foreign country to celebrate a milestone wedding anniversary and one of their milestone birthdays. There is absolutely zero chance that we are going to do this, and I am trying to figure out how to tell them we aren’t going in a way that minimizes the hysterical shitshow they (mostly my mother) will perform.

Obviously, one extreme would be, “We’re not going on this trip with you, because you always behave terribly and it is misery to be around you, and thus we will never travel with you, especially to a foreign country.” Any creative ideas for scripts to make use of? Obviously, I can’t just say, “We aren’t available those dates”, because they’ll just propose other dates. One thing I thought of was, “Oh, it’s a nice suggestion, but we just really don’t like traveling with other people.” PhysioWife doesn’t think that sounds plausible, because we travel all the time with her family (who are totes awesome).

Anyway, any suggestions? I am sort of at a loss, and am feeling resigned to just having to say, “We don’t want to travel with you”, and dealing with the hysterical fallout.

We didn’t have any good advice, but folks in the comments did.  We bet more of our readers will as well!

Perpetua suggests:

There are a couple of other possibilities besides the ones you’ve mentioned. You could cite money as an issue (that is, you don’t have the money to travel, or to travel the way they’d want to travel), and if they’re offering to pay you could say this makes you and your wife feel very uncomfortable and you don’t want to go if you can’t pay for yourselves, which you can’t (either because you have no extra money or, if that’s not plausible, because you’re saving your money for X thing). If the milestone anniversary is one of yours (rather than theirs) you could simply say you’ve decided to celebrate another way – or if it’s theirs and you have a milestone of your own coming up in the next 2-5 years, you could say you’re saving for X special thing for that milestone. You could also develop a work or health related reason why travel in the timeframe they’re wanting to travel won’t work for you and you would be miserable if they postponed their trip because of you. (This kind of thing is one of the rare cases where having kids can be helpful – a handy excuse to get out of things you don’t want to do! Pets might work – my ILs excused themselves from visiting us for years because of their dog.)

to which Delagar adds:

I used a work-related reason when my toxic family wanted our entire family to go on a cruise together for my parents’ 50th anniversary. I was going up for full professor, said I had to work on that. It was even (sort of) true, and it worked like a charm. Don’t you have a paper or something? Could be very pressing!

Becca suggests:

Any chance of saying “Oh, we weren’t planning on traveling there this year, and we don’t want to ruin the romance of your *milestone wedding anniversary*. But we’d like to be part of the festivities by throwing you a small ‘bon voyage’/happy milestones party at our place right before you leave”. This would involve no more than the typical amount of contact with them, with the added bonus of you having the option to have the evening catered so you don’t actually have to go out in public with them if you don’t want to.

Similarly, from Rented life:

“Thanks but actually we had planned something special for you to mark the occasion” and then do nice night out with dinners and show (or whatever is appropriate–small party? Etc.). You’ve marked the occasion, met the family obligation and no one can say you ignored the big deal milestone.

Debbie M. with this advice:

I’m always a fan of true answers, but then I only rarely have to deal with unreasonable people. So the question is how to be tactful. I’m not so great with the tact. The truth you’ve mentioned is that you don’t like to see how they treat service workers, so watching that is something you don’t want to do on your vacations. The tactful route might be something about how y’all might ruin their trip by freaking out about how they treat service people, and you wouldn’t want to do that on their special trip. The best thing about true reasons is if they really do address them, it’s win-win! But they probably can’t treat service people with respect. And even if they suddenly could, I get the idea there are plenty of other good reasons not to accompany them.

I’ve also read many times that “No” is a complete sentence, though I prefer “No, thanks.” In this case, even, “No, but thanks so much for thinking of us. We wish you all the best on your exciting trip.” But don’t people always then ask why? “Oh, we’re not interested, but thanks.”

Bleh. Good luck.

Leigh notes:

One of the best excuses I’ve used is “I don’t have enough vacation days for that trip.”

And Steph points to Captain Awkward, which CPP should probably be reading on a regular basis, since they occasionally deal with questions about highly difficult people:

Captain Awkward might also be useful. The closest thing I could find quickly was this post about not wanting certain family to come visit:  http://captainawkward.com/2015/02/02/655-visits-with-highly-difficult-people/
but her archives are extensive and likely to have something http://captainawkward.com/archives/

Grumpy Nation, what would you suggest?

It’s ask the grumpies time again: Put your ask the grumpies questions here!

Hard to believe, but we’ve finally run out of ask the grumpies questions.

When that happens, we solicit more!

Ask the grumpies is a feature we run every other Friday (unless we get an emergency question that displaces the alternating google questions feature).  You ask, we answer, or we punt and ask the grumpy nation to answer.  In any case, you get the benefit of not only our wisdom but the collective wisdom of the far wiser grumpy nation.

What questions do you have for us?  What can we bring clarity or further confusion to?  What can the grumpy nation ponder and discuss on your behalf?  Ask in the comments below or email us at grumpyrumblings at gmail dot com.

Ask the grumpies: minimum wage

Mutant Supermodel asks:

what do economists think about raising the minimum wage? Is there a general consensus either way or is it as mixed up as it is on my Facebook feed?

#1 is not the economist but I’ll say that I support it right now, within reason.  What does #2 say?

Ok, the short of it is:  Economists are still divided on the topic of whether or not, and at what point, raising minimum wages decreases jobs or job growth.

Basic econ 101 theory says that if you raise the minimum wage, creating a wage floor, in a perfectly competitive market, then employment will go down because all the people who would have gotten jobs at lower wages will no longer get jobs.  (This is usually taught in the same chapter as why rent control is bad.)

That’s basic economic theory in a perfectly competitive market.  Market intervention hurts jobs.

HOWEVER, we don’t live in a textbook world.  So this is an empirical question.  And there are literally hundreds of papers exploring the effect of minimum wage increases in a non-experimental framework.  They find mixed results based on functional form.

The first major natural experiment on this topic is one by David Card and Alan Kruger.  They look at the effect of a minimum wage increase on employment of fast food workers at border counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  They find that employment doesn’t change or actually *increases* in the state where the minimum wage goes up.  It doesn’t seem to be decreasing employment at all.

There are a number of potential explanations.  One that I’ve always liked (for its simplicity), but many prominent economists don’t share my like of is the thought that these fast food markets have monopsony power– which is like monopoly power, but what you have when you’re the only employer (or one of the only employers).  When employers have this kind of labor market power, they can keep wages artificially low because they can say either you work for us or you get nothing, because there’s no competitor to say you can work for me and I’ll give you a penny more (thus bidding up wages).  (You don’t need just one employer for there to be some monopsony power– just a small number of employers if they’re willing to collude, or for there to be other frictions in the labor market.)  When this happens, increasing the minimum wage would just reduce profits but wouldn’t negatively affect employment.

David Neumark is the big anti-Card and Kruger guy.  His work with coauthors argues that Card and Kruger’s survey data are inaccurate and that employment goes down based on administrative data.  Card and Kruger disagree.  There was some back and forth.  Cambridge-school economists tend to believe Card and Kruger.  Chicago-school economists tend to believe Neumark and Wascher.

More recently there’s been some work that reconciles all of the findings, suggesting that minimum wage increases don’t actually have a lot of effect in the short run.  People don’t get fired because the minimum wage increases, because firing people is bad for company morale (among other things).  HOWEVER, this newer work suggests that the minimum wage does depress job growth in the long-run.  As people leave (as they often do in minimum wage jobs), they’re not replaced  one-for-one.  There may also be an effect on overall growth by industry (with firms that can only afford minimum wage workers shrinking or going out of business), which would further disguise any negative effect on employment.

What’s the bottom-line?  Economists don’t know.  Most, if not all, economists will agree that there’s some point at which the minimum wage really does decrease employment rates.  (If minimum wage were $100/hr, most of us would stop sending our kids to daycare and fast food workers would be replaced entirely by machines.)  Many economists will also point out that, historically, real minimum wages have been much higher, particularly at times of economic growth (correlation not being causation, but slyly winking and nudging that direction), and some will even note that we’re subsidizing companies that don’t offer a minimum wage with foodstamps and other benefits.  Without those government subsidies, companies might be forced to offer living wages.

Personally, I think the minimum wage should be raised right now.  However, I’m not sure that it should be raised as much as some people are suggesting, particularly in some parts of the country where living costs tend to be lower.  (Just as a sniff test, I’m willing to hire people at $10/hr for standard minimum wage jobs that I’m not willing to hire at $12.50/hr– I’ll just do it myself at that price unless I already know the person is exceptionally competent.)  And then there’s all those exceptions to think about… should teenage wages be lower (and what does that do to adult unemployment?)?  Waitstaff positions?  And so on.  It’s a very complicated question full of many moving parts, and if economists can’t even agree on the direction, it’s hard to know what the magnitude is!

 

Ask the grumpies: political polarization

Cloud asks:

Are we or are we not living in an age of unusual political polarization?

So there’s two ask the grumpies questions left in our queue of unanswered ask the grumpies and they’re both hard.  The other one is on the minimum wage and I actually know the answer to it (because it’s standard labor economics) but it’s gonna take a while to answer well because it’s a complex issue.  (All to get to the bottom line of “economists still disagree on this one.”)

This one is out of my wheelhouse, so I’m going to punt it.

My colleagues say yes and they point to gerrymandering and that easy filibuster rule.

Bogart actually brought up two blog posts in the comments when this was asked saying:

If you are talking about Congress, here are two blog posts by scholars who are widely published on this issue: http://voteview.com/blog/?p=726 , http://voteview.com/blog/?p=953 . The short answer is yes, and that most of the recent ideological motion has been a rightward move by Republicans. If you’re talking about the electorate, I’ll need to pull up different information and my sense is the story is somewhat murkier. Gerrymandering is clearly an issue (but nothing new), and it seems we (individuals) are self-sorting in ways that involve ideological clustering more than we used to, but I’d have to dig out sources.

To which I replied:

My sense is that every time the census districts are redrawn, gerrymandering is bad. But the essence of gerrymandering is such that it only takes a little bit to tip districts over on average (the way that gerrymandering works is you’re trying to get the biggest partisan bang for the buck, so there’s a lot of fragile districts), so as time goes on the effects of gerrymandering diminish until the next redistricting.

There’s also a lot of talk lately about how republicans are doing a good job of taking over state legislatures and state governments, which can have national effects through things like redistricting or setting educational curricula.

To which she responded:

I’d have to look this up to confirm/quantify, but my sense is that a noticeable Republican takeover of state legislatures and governorships coincided with the recent round of redistricting, leading to gerrymandering more obvious to many of us because it benefits those “other” guys. The development of majority minority districts has arguably also exacerbated this, as drawing district lines to concentrate African-American voters obviously concentrates a large and probably the most predictably Democratic constituency in one place and, by extension, makes it unavailable to others.

On the other hand, prior to the 1960s many Southern states (at least) simply didn’t redistrict (much), giving a pronouncedly amplified voice to rural (white) voters at the expense of urban (black) voters. So how bad things are is partly a function of what you’re comparing them to, as ever.

Finally, if we’re talking *historically* in terms of political polarization, say, pre-Carter, or pre-Roosevelt, or pre-Hoover… that I can’t say.  We’re certainly less polarized than we were in say, the 1860s.  (In that we’re not having a civil war.)

Are any of our readers (in addition to Bogart) more knowledgeable on this subject than the grumpies?  Chime in in the comments!

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