Ask the grumpies: Student research assistants

Steph asks:

How do you decide to take on a research student, especially an undergraduate? What qualities do you look for, especially if you only have 1-2 meetings and a CV to make a decision?

I like having research assistants for two main reasons:  1.  There are a lot of drudgery things that need being done that an undergrad can learn from (lists of works cited, repetitive programming tasks) that are easier to do if you know you’re getting paid by the hour and 2. I like watching people grow.  I often take completely untrained students and turn them into somewhat trained students who can go on to work with more prominent people.  I have former undergraduate research assistants who are now themselves professors at top 10 universities, and others who have gotten law degrees from top 3 law schools.

But I’ve also ended up with flaky research assistants and it seems like the ability to pattern match or to show attention to detail has been declining in the population of students I’ve been interviewing.  I can no longer assume basic excel skills or even knowing where to find a file they downloaded.  For a while it seemed like reading comprehension was also completely shot– like they could not follow written instructions, though that seems to hopefully be on the wane now.  A bad RA is more work than they are worth.

It is really hard to pick good RAs, especially if you’re not teaching an obvious feeder class.  I often try to have at least two RAs at the same time, under the assumption that one will end up flaking.  In fact, this summer one has flaked already– he wanted to work 20hrs/week and start before classes got out, but then didn’t get his I9 in for a month at which point he said his other job (that he said he didn’t have at the interview) wanted him to work 40hrs/week so he wasn’t going to start after all.  But… I didn’t ever have to pay for him since he never completed his paperwork, which is better than someone who just makes more work than they’re worth.

So, I can’t really say what makes a *good* research assistant, but I can tell you some things I’ve learned by making bad choices.

You know that story about the rock star requiring a bowl full of green mnms on tour, not because they actually wanted them, but to make sure the venue was reading the fine print?  That’s for real– make the application process just a little more complicated than it needs to be.  For example, I make them send a letter of interest and a resume directly to my email rather than through the university jobs system, not because I really need that but because I want to make sure they can follow directions.  Anybody who can’t do that gets automatically put in the no bin.

Anybody who shows up for the interview late is an automatic no.  (Slight exception– if they are obviously flustered and apologetic and have an actual real reason above and beyond traffic was unexpectedly heavy, it might be ok.  You have to use your judgement here.)  People who are late for an interview aren’t generally reliable for other things.

They need to be able to answer the “Why do you want this job?” question with something other than “I need the money.”  It may be honest, but people who are just there for the money don’t tend to do a great job– I rarely have to fire anyone, but I did have to fire one of these.  You want someone who says they are genuinely interested in the project or wants to know if research is right for them or has a good career or interest reason to be invested in your work beyond the paycheck.  It may be cheap talk, but anybody who hasn’t thought about this question and come up with a good answer is not someone you want to hire.

Getting someone from your classes who is a hard worker– turns in homework, comes to office hours as needed, etc. and has shown attention to detail in your own class is the best bet.  Failing that, strong endorsements from a colleague over the same are fantastic.  But of course, that’s not always possible.

GPA isn’t a perfect predictor, but I’ve started requiring it in my applications.  I didn’t used to.  I know I’m missing out on good people and I’ve had people with higher GPAs who aren’t the best RAs, but screening is hard and it is a helpful piece of information.

For me, the ideal RA is someone who is a little bit OCD in the colloquial sense– someone who has a bit of a perfectionist streak and is ok with taking time to get things right.  If someone has attention to detail and is responsible, I can train them up in everything else.  I also like it when I ask if they’re willing to ask questions the candidate emphasizes that they feel more comfortable doing that.  And people with good pattern matching skills are usually great.

Grumpy Nation:  How do you search and screen for student RAs (if applicable)?  How do you screen new hires more generally?

Software for project management/RA management/etc. in the Social Sciences?

Some of this post may be out of date– I started it something like 4 years ago(!)  UPDATE:  6 years ago (!)  All of the cost numbers below are at least two years out of date.

Spoiler:  What I’m currently using is Trello for project-based assignments in conjunction with Gmail for weekly assignments.  I also have one project on Github, but Github is not great for social scientists and it’s slow and clunky compared to Trello.  It has additional features, but they’re just not optimized for what we need.

When I was on leave, I thought it would be nice to figure out a program management methodology that was better than my gmail assignment method, which worked well when I had 1-2 very good RAs who could follow instructions, but not so well if I got more RAs or they were incapable of replying directly to the assignment email despite multiple reminders and a pop quiz during training (to be fair, these folks generally weren’t great at actually doing the tasks assigned either).

So I asked famous economists what they used and I asked grad students and new assistant professors what they used and just generally listened to people discussing this topic.  The idea would be to use whatever everyone else was using which would make collaboration easier going forward.  Economists tend to use dropbox instead of drive or OneDrive any other program (though some of my interdisciplinary collaborators are completely on Drive and not dropbox…) and we tend to use Stata instead of R or SPSS (though some people use R and some people use SAS), and just using those choices makes life a lot easier.

PivotalTracker?  MavenLink?  MS BaseCamp?  Jira? Trello?  Slack?  Google Tasks?

One of my colleagues likes Basecamp.  He thought Jira was too involved. He preferred TortoiseSVN to Github, which are both good at file management, but not great for project management.

I have not looked into kanbanflow.  Recently I’ve been getting a lot of ads for Asana, but haven’t looked into that either.

Pivotal tracker is free for academic use.

Github is different, it is more for storing text files and is really focused on computer programs.  You can set it up like a kanban board but it is slow and clunky.

The following is from 2+ years ago, so prices etc. may have changed:

I went through the different project management software options. Below I listed the prices, pros, and cons of them. Overall, I don’t think it would be necessary to pay for anything. The ones that require a subscription usually include a lot of features that are not necessary, like help budgeting or performance data.

Trello seems pretty easy to use, is free, and lets you organize and assign tasks fairly simply. You can also attach documents through Trello.

Another option that might be worth looking into is Dropbox Paper. It lets you use your Dropbox account to make task lists easily and is more customizable than other options. That might be a good option because it would not require a new account and would allow you to move things around and keep things in a central location. You can also obviously share documents through Dropbox and Dropbox Paper lets you link in Dropbox documents easily.

I think switching to either of those systems would not require a huge amount of setup since they both seem fairly straightforward and customizable. The advantages would be that it would be easier to keep track of tasks over time and across multiple RAs. Tasks would be stored in the same place, clearly assigned to different people, and you can check them off when they are done.

PivotalTracker

Probably free as they offer a free, sponsored version for academic institutions if you request it. Otherwise, $12.50/month gets you 5 people and up to 5 projects
Pros: It is designed to be collaborative so you can see what people are working on.
Cons: It is designed for software development. It appears harder to learn and not very flexible. Mostly it looks like a way to boost productivity, or “velocity” as PivotalTracker calls it, by tracking software developers as they complete tasks. People earn “points” when they complete “stories”, but it doesn’t look like things can be prioritized or that you can make notes for partial completion or other things. This is very much geared toward software development.

MavenLink

$19/mo for up to five users
Pros: This is designed specifically to be collaborative and to allow for you to assign tasks and see everything you have assigned and what has been completed.
Cons: This does a lot that is not needed. It is designed to manage tasks but also manage budgets so it can be used to record billable hours and send invoices. It likely will require a bit of a learning curve to start.

MS BaseCamp

$99/month for as many users as you want
Pros: Allows for projects to have multiple to do lists under them, fairly simple to use. It is easy to assign tasks to specific people and allows for other ways to share things such as a message board and a place to share documents.
Cons: Mainly, this is very expensive because it does way more than manage two student workers.

https://kanbanflow.com/

Free
Pros: Straightforward for arranging tasks. Multiple people can use a board for tasks and you can assign tasks to certain people in the board. You can add due dates and change columns depending on what you want. The standard columns are To Do, In Progress, Done.
Cons: You cannot use this to send attachments, so it can only be used to arrange tasks.

Trello

Free (options to upgrade, but the free version seems sufficient)
Pros: Very customizable, you just create lists with tasks in them. You could create a list for each RA, or a list for each project, or just a to, in progress, and completed list. Tasks can be assigned to individual people. It can be used to send documents.
Cons: Likely has a small learning curve.

Slack

There is a free version that is probably enough. Otherwise, $8 per month + $6.67 per user per month
Pros: It works very similarly to email but in message format. You have the option of sending messages in a public forum or privately to team members. It is easily searchable. You can organize messages into channels based on the project or based on who you want in the conversation. You can include attachments the same way you would with email,
Cons: It seems like it is mostly just a chatroom for businesses. It seems like it has a lot of hype and users, but I am not convinced it is very different from email except it has a more “instantaneous” feel to it because it is messaging.

Google Tasks

Free
Pros: It is synced with your existing Google account so it will be easy to set up. You can send other people a task list and people can put emails into their task list.
Cons: It is not a terribly collaborative feature. You can send people a task list and put emails into your to do list, but you cannot really have two people editing a single to do list it seems. I am not even sure if you would be able to see other people’s tasks, so once it is sent is is essentially no different from emails, although possibly easier for the receiver to keep track of each task.

Dropbox Paper

Free
Pros: Relies on existing Dropbox accounts, so you can send links to documents that way. It is essentially a document that you can add task lists and other notes to as needed. You can assign tasks to people and rearrange them as necessary. There is a lot of flexibility in what is put in and you can do things like tasks and subtasks.
Cons: This is essentially self-organized so it is not that different from any Word Document that you wanted to make a To Do list on, except it it a little easier to set up and more collaborative.

The bottom line seems to be that any system will work if you put enough effort into it and no system will work if you don’t put effort into it.  Very few people felt that the start-up costs were worth it.

Do you use any project management software?  How do you organize your projects?

Reinvention summer? Work summer!

While the pandemic was not all bad for my research– I broke some bad habits and somehow made it so I’m not the go-to person for students with problems anymore– I’ve also gained a lot of bad habits.

With travel starting again and a whole summer ahead of me and my pipeline looking like maybe there will be a gap in it in the future if I don’t do something, I’m going to swear before the blog that I’m going to try some stuff.

  1. Write 1 hour every (week)day.  I have papers that just need to get written.  I have literature reviews that need to be done.  Stuff doesn’t get out the door just as powerpoints.
  2. Email 1hr INCLUDING reading emailed lists of abstracts.  So… during the pandemic, I just stopped reading the weekly/monthly/quarterly summaries of working papers and published work that I get.  Instead I put them all in a folder called “TO READ”.  Once my final grades are in, I am going to start tackling that.  And the huge pile of paper versions I have in a pile on my desk.  If it is 3pm and I don’t feel like working– that is what I am going to do.
  3. Class prep.  I am supposed to be developing a new course that has something to do with my research but will also make.  I ordered textbooks for one of the possibilities months ago and I got a syllabus and reading list from a friend who teaches the other possibility (at Stanford!) but I need to read the textbooks and decide and make a syllabus and set up whatever class it is that I decide on.
  4. Exercise even if it is just a daily walk.  This is easy to do when I go into work and my walking buddy is also there, but I don’t know what her plans are this summer, and I need something for the days I stay home as well.  Both of our kids are also going to be home, so maybe I should do something that gets them out of the house too.  Perhaps it is time for DC1 to learn to unicycle.
  5. Wean myself off of sugar and refined carbs.  I’m so much more energetic when I’m not eating things that don’t play well with my PCOS.  I need to stop bringing them into the house.  (Exception:  DH/DC’s baking, food while traveling.)

So, that’s me trying to be productive this summer.  This does not include all the travel I’m doing this summer.  I don’t need to write or do email or class prep while I’m at a conference or on vacation.  But because I have that vacation, I do need to be productive while I’m not on it!  And I need to get things off my plate so I’m ready for new projects and possibilities.

Do you have any summer work goals?

Cognitive dissonance is painful

Another abandoned and revived post from 2011…

Our major is difficult and our new undergraduate students are often not used to thinking.

Graduate school was a similar painful change, though in a different way…

But there’s definitely this battle between a self-concept that has reasonable self-esteem battling with facing difficult challenges and, in many of our students’ cases, being forced to go from black and white thinking to something more nuanced with shades of grey.  Learning that there’s not always a right answer but you have to make decisions anyway.

Ow ow ow ow… It can be painful while you’re getting used to it.

Then everything is ok.  Maybe some scar tissue.

One of the things we’ve done to help our students is to have sections in the syllabi of all our initial core courses explaining how they’re learning to think– learning how to ask questions, not just answer them, and how they may think they’re dumb, but that’s actually just their brains growing.  It seems to have helped.

Have you ever had problems with your self concept vs. new challenges?  How did you get through it?

A rant about always being the test case, about always being the competent one, about always having to double check

My friend is a department chair and head of a search committee in her department.  For their first job candidate, she checked the room she’d booked for the job talk and found that not only did it have no chairs, but the floor was wet.  Housekeeping said, sorry not sorry, but that’s your problem, not ours.

Luckily she discovered this several hours before the job talk and was able to scramble to get another room booked.  If she hadn’t checked with plenty of time upfront it would have been a disaster.  (Checking was not trivial since it’s in another building and it’s cold outside.)

I recently found out that I handle more articles than any of the other associate editors for one of the journals I’m an associate editor at.  The new EIC let that slip.  I honestly didn’t think that some of the famous people who are associate editors were doing a whole ton.  Anyhow, I also turned out to be the first person to make a decision on a paper with the new EIC in charge and he got very annoyed at *me* because whatever was set up on the editor-in-chief side wasn’t working for him!  He’s like, I got the email saying you sent something to me, but I cannot see it.  Where is it?!  And another email to me with, “You need to login to see for yourself,” including screen shots.  And I’m like, I don’t know what you’re supposed to see, but there’s nothing I can do about it (except I didn’t say that because I’ve been socialized as a female so instead I said it got archived on my side just like it always does and maybe he didn’t have the access he needed for the full EIC setup?)  So he emailed the company that takes care of that and was like, Nicole suggested that maybe I don’t have the full access I’m supposed to.  UGH.  If I weren’t so on top of things someone else would have had this interaction and it would have been a guy so the conversation would have gone differently.  But it’s not my fault he didn’t get a full tutorial before taking over!  And he’s been in transition for over a month!  Surely the outgoing editor could have assigned him something and walked him through it. [Also:  He did have full access, he just didn’t click on the obvious link, as I saw in the screencap instructions that the company then sent that I was cc’d on.]

At the end of last semester I still didn’t know what classes I would be teaching this semester because the chair hadn’t told me yet, so I checked the online courses and discovered that we had dead and retired people signed up to teach classes we no longer offer because something had gone wrong with the system and they’d posted a schedule from years ago.  I pointed this out to the department chair (succinctly and politely, I swear!).  No thanks, just irritation.

At the beginning of this semester I tried to get into my new classroom to see the set-up and where the camera was and if there were whiteboards and markers etc.  But I couldn’t get in because we no longer have keys and for some reason they cancelled all our card access, including the chair’s.  Sorry anybody with an 8am class, you would have been SOL unless you could find a maintenance person to let you in.  Chair mildly annoyed, especially when I hadn’t heard anything and asked about it again after classes started but before my first class (zie had put in a work order but hadn’t heard back yet, not sure what happened with 8am classes).

I also am generally the person to discover that the xerox machine is broken at the beginning of the semester.  I’m pretty good at fixing it, but sometimes there are things that need an actual technician.

We had a full day faculty retreat and I forced the department head to have a pre-meeting to make sure we could get everything on the agenda that zie wanted.  (Obviously we couldn’t) and to make sure that zie knew what hir priorities were for each item on the agenda.  And to make sure we HAD an agenda!!  And then during the meeting I kept things on track and pulled back to the agenda any time we started going in circles or strayed too far.  Nobody was happy about this, especially people who weren’t at the last full day faculty retreat where we accomplished nothing (but at least we weren’t indoors during a pandemic).  But we stuck to the agenda, got the answers the chair needed, and ended on time.

In multiple coauthorships I’m generally the annoying person calling for meetings or asking when they’ll have a chance to look at things.  I’m not very good at this because I stop at the tiniest sign of irritation because of too much experience with people yelling at me.  Much easier to just do stuff myself if I can.  :/

Even DC2 gets irritated at me for being the messenger when zie gets something wrong in a homework book.  It’s not my fault you did the area and not the perimeter!  Just fix it!  (We have told DC2 to stop being a jerk when someone points out a mistake.)

And yet, if I keep my mouth shut, things that I predict will go wrong go wrong.  It’s not like I’m better off not saying anything– I’m not.  If I could trust that someone else would notice or pick up the slack then I could just let things go.  I could not double check things.

I do make sure to praise my RAs any time they find a mistake or bring up something odd they’ve noticed.  Because it is valuable!  And it is really helpful to have someone keeping things on track.  I just wish it wasn’t generally me.

Do you work with competent people?  Are you always double-checking and glad you did so?  Do you feel appreciated?

Back up your computer!

I got home from visiting the in-laws to find my computer dead.  The C drive is basically toast.  (I’m now moving my stuff over to DH’s old desktop, which I’d been planning to do for a while since my old desktop was OLD, but hadn’t gotten around to yet because change is hard, y’all.  So hopefully no new posts about buying a computer.)

But that was only about a day’s worth of hassle because ever since I lost some pilot data as a graduate student, I have been compulsive about backing up my computer.

Now, I do not have the kind of (human) memory to remember to manually back things up once a week or whatever.  So ever since there have been automated solutions, I have used them.  Early on that meant I had my hard drives set up in a RAID array, meaning that instead of having one hard drive in my computer, I had two that were essentially copies of each other, the idea being that there would probably be some time in between one dying and the other dying.

These days I use the cloud as backup for my harddrives (I also use dropbox and drive etc, but that’s all for work stuff).  My backup program of choice (completely not sponsored) is called Backblaze.  It is comparatively inexpensive at $7/month and it is pretty comprehensive.  And it just works.

Now, there are two potential problems:  1.  if you don’t have unlimited data in your internet plan, it will eat a lot of your monthly limit as it uploads things, at least at first, and 2. it is SLOW.  But for something that you only need for hopefully rare emergencies, slow isn’t so bad.

I also use puresync to copy my external hardrive to an internal one every time I plug it into my desktop.  External hd are more prone to toasting than are internal in my experience (possibly because I am not as careful with my external hd as I ought to be, often throwing them into a bag and occasionally dropping them), so it’s nice having that additional layer of backup.

How do you backup your computer stuff?

Navel gazing on goals and midlife crises

It seems like everyone I read online is stepping back to focus on enjoying life and working less.

I’m not thrilled with my work right now and I’m not that interested in the projects I’m currently doing.  But I’m resisting this notion of purposefully cutting back.

The truth is, I like being busy.  I like accomplishing things.  I like *having accomplished* things.  I also like reading books and watching youtube videos and eating yummy food.  I like reading cookbooks, and if I don’t have much to do, cooking ranks as a hobby.  I think I enjoy the quiet life that I fit in around the edges of my job.  I love my little family to pieces– DH is my world, my kids are amazing, our cat is sweet and adorable.  Maybe not healthy, but they do bring me joy and make it extremely easy to practice daily mindfulness.  #blessed

The things I’m not currently delighted with (and could, indeed, be the subject of New Years resolutions or February challenges or just life goals in general) are 1. persistent work worries, 2. a feeling of fractured attention (ever since I got a cell phone 6 years ago… was it Trump or Twitter or both?), 3. a concern that I’m not doing enough activism, and 4. a general underlying feeling that I’m not particularly physically fit these days.  This last one seems both the easiest to address in terms of obvious actionable items but is also the one I care about the least. Though having problems with plantar fasciitis and injuring myself doing online yoga videos or calisthenics and so on have really shaken my underlying belief that I can, someday when I get around to it, just get back into shape.

The work worries are the biggest thing bothering me right now (besides things I can’t do as much about, *gestures at incipient fascism*).  Their two main things are 1.  I’m great at planning but am currently having difficulties with motivation which is kind of weird for me– in the past even if I’m not motivated to do one thing, I can productively procrastinate with how motivated that makes me to do other work.  #CatholicGuilt and 2.  Although I currently have two solid projects that are almost done (both literally need a week of work from a coauthor and a little pushing from me before getting sent out), I don’t have any big projects set up after that.  I have lots of little projects that me 6 years ago would never have even started because they’re so little, but they have student coauthors and grant funders and so on who deserve these smaller publications to be published.  Two of them are even currently R&R and just need to get DONE (the second R&R the student is working on, the first R&R the student has graduated, gotten a full time job, and had a baby so it’s all me.).  I know the path forward for these smaller projects and just need to get them out so I can start thinking big thoughts again and try to get back into the mindset of solid field journal paper in economics.  But I need space and time for that, and I think part of me is afraid of having that space and time in case I end up with nothing.  Which may be why I’m procrastinating on the smaller papers that need to get done.

And sometimes I wonder… I mean, I could just give it all up.  Give up my association memberships (including the new unexpected one), give up my identity as an economist, and I dunno, organize my house or something.  I find sorting things calming, so long as there’s a purpose to it and nobody unsorts it right away.  Then I could focus on stepping back and working less or something.  I mean, I really have nothing to step closer to.

I was brought up to believe that I should be productive, that I have gifts and I should be using those gifts to make the world a better place for other people.  I can do a LOT of that in my job– researching important topics with policy implications, mentoring students, mentoring junior faculty, teaching really well, removing students’ undeserved math phobia and building their (deserved) confidence, making sure that meetings are efficient and we actually move things forward based on best evidence (people who don’t remember meetings where this doesn’t happen don’t appreciate this last thing).  What if I were more selfish and just I dunno, spend the days cooking and reading novels?  (No gardening since I’m allergic to so many plants.)  Would I feel guilty?  Would I be unable to do it and end up throwing myself into volunteering and be miserable so doing?

Fractured attention– doomscrolling twitter is problematic.  I definitely feel more focused when I don’t start the day reading twitter.  But I can’t block it on my phone because of my stupid dual factor authentication software that I need for work.  Likewise I can’t just leave my phone elsewhere because of said software.  So although this seems like a simple thing to fix, it actually requires willpower.  I’m trying to think of if there is any device I could use for duo that doesn’t also have twitter… and … maybe my university has a usb fob that you can stick into some computers?  I don’t know if that works for the web-based things I need or just for logging into university computers, but I suppose I could try.  Looked it up– NOPE.  So, still need my phone.

Not doing enough activism.  Right now I’m not sure what I should be doing.  It was easier when other people were also doing activism.  It sounds like people are starting to get over being burned out, so this may be a place I can focus again.  I should make it clear– I do not enjoy doing activism.  This is something I hate doing.  It does not bring me joy.  But it is really important.  How best to do it right now, I don’t know.  But I do know it is really important and we are at a potential inflection point in the US and we cannot keep quiet or we may lose all the gains we’ve been fighting for for the past 50-100 years or more.  We need to protect our democracy and we need to protect vulnerable people.  The promise of the American Dream is in our hands.

And yeah, physical fitness.  Just needs time and probably money.  I should probably join co-Pilot like DH has and just do what the trainer says to do.  But I don’t wanna.  I do not want to.  So I will keep up with my desultory walking around and occasionally trying things until I hurt myself and give up.  I am being honest that this is not a priority.  And I’m sure there will be comments from people trying to talk me out of it (oh, but you will feel so much better in every other aspect of your life, oh all you need to do is X etc.), but all those will serve to do is vaguely irritate me.  I’m not a total lump.  My bloodwork numbers are fine.  I get my 10,000 steps in or whatever (though now while wearing slippers with arches instead of barefoot).  I will do whatever I do on physical fitness on my own timeframe.

So where does that leave me?  Still waiting for space, I think.  Still trying to find the perfect organizational system when really I know it’s not the organizing that’s the problem, it’s the willpower.  But I’ll get these papers in and coauthors will finish things, eventually.  And time will move forward.  And I’ve got some space this semester and even more next year.  I’ll be fine.

Here’s what Scalzi says about his New Years Planning:

2020 was the year a lot of things fell apart for me (and for everyone else, to be fair); 2021 was in many ways a year for me to rest and regroup; 2022 is hopefully the year I’ll start building some of the structures and practices that could carry on for me for the next several years.

Maybe that will be for me too… I just have to get some of these small projects out the door first.

Are you thinking of ramping up, cutting back, or reorganizing this year?

Even more on masks

Things I think I know from reading mask twitter (these are mostly PhDs who worked on N95 or aerosol studies etc. prior to the pandemic… I only link to mask nerd, but if you click on the people he retweets you end up going down a rabbithole of aerosol maskery) and watching masknerd on youtube.

  • The best mask is the one you will wear consistently.
  • Cloth masks are somewhat ok at protecting other people (WAY better than nothing), but not so great at protecting the wearer.
  • Fit is more important than filtration.
  • Filtration is still important.  Especially if you’re in places where not everyone is masked.
  • Cloth masks, even ones with filters, fall down on filtration.  None of the cloth masks with filters I’ve seen tested have a filter that goes all the way to the edges (including enro :( ).
  • Masks with head elastics tend to be easier to get a good fit with than masks with ear loops.
  • Masks with ear loops may be easier to keep wearing the entire day, especially if you occasionally have to take it off to do things like eat or drink.
  • KF94 last at least 40 hours without losing filtration.  N95 have been tested to last even longer.  One expert says that that with N95 the elastics die (or become too loose so you lose fit) before there’s filtration loss.
  • Do NOT wash your paper mask with alcohol or sanitizer– that kills the electrostatic charge.  (Getting your mask wet seems to be ok, so don’t worry about rain.  Still, don’t wash them.)
  • The best way to “clean” your mask is to wear it for up to 8 hours and then just set it aside for a couple of days.  Practically speaking, if your kids are going to school, this could operationalize as having 5 masks that they wear one school day a week for up to 5 weeks or until the fit no longer works, then swap out with another 5 masks.   My kids put their masks in a box next to the door when they come home.  I plan to put hash tallies on the masks in an unobtrusive place each weekend in order to keep track of how many uses they’ve had.  (YMMV if your kids get their masks literally dirty.)
  • Different faces fit different masks.  Standard N95 don’t do as well with women’s faces or Asian faces on average compared to other groups (they weren’t tested on them!).
  • It’s great if you can try a bunch of different masks in different sizes to find what works for you.  Also you may find that different masks work better in different situations (ex. A bifold Respokare works really well for my face shape, even though the measured filtration isn’t as impressive as the price-tag, but it is not breathable enough for an 8 hour day, where I prefer a medium Botn KF94 or Posh Large).
  • 3M makes different shapes of N95.  We’re really liking their boat shape, though they’re not the prettiest masks (there’s visible staples).  You probably don’t want the hard body N95 for everyday use.
  • KF94 have much better filtration than 94%.  The Korean government does a great job making sure that they don’t go below 94% which provides an incentive for companies to exceed that, and also makes it more difficult for fakes to come into the market (much easier to fake a KN95 because the Chinese government isn’t as careful).  KF94 are also a population-level mask, whereas the N95 standards are for occupations.
  • Amazon sells a lot of counterfeit masks, especially KN95.  You’re best off going with a Korean mask from someplace like behealthyusa.net or 3M masks from your local hardware store or an authorized 3M dealer.  (I went on the 3M page and found places they authorized to get our 3M masks).
  • Fogging glasses doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a bad nose fit.  On the one hand, if you have a bad nose fit, your glasses are likely to fog, especially if you have a good fit everywhere else.  BUT if you have a great fit everywhere, that water vapor may still come out of the top.  Masks are breathable.  It’s the electrostatic charge that’s doing the job with Covid, not a complete lack of holes in the paper.  Some masks will put non-breathable paper on the top of the mask to prevent fogged glasses, but most don’t.
  • With a good mask and a good mask fit, you shouldn’t be able to smell perfumes, but you may still be able to smell things like cooking food.  Apparently this has something to do with what the smells travel on and how big the particles are.
  • The tests experts recommend don’t tend to be smell tests — they tend to be feeling for air gaps tests.  They have different suggestions for how to test.  I’m not sure what is best.  Also, it’s ok for the mask to move out a little bit when you breathe out.
  • Some experts say if you’re boosted and wearing a well-fitting N95/KF95/(genuine)KN95 you’re ok and unlikely to get sick, even with Omicron.  Other experts say, no, if you’re the only person wearing a mask, even if you’re boosted, all that does is increase the amount of time before you get an infection and decrease the viral load.  Medical professionals, they argue, are professionally fitted and have other protections when working with Covid positive patients.  But increasing time and decreasing viral load is a good thing!

Are these true?  I don’t know!  They disagree with things other non-experts have said in their round-ups (see:  Josh Marshall), but the general idea– wear N95/KF94/(genuine)KN95 instead of cloth or surgical masks, and get the best fitting of those that you’re willing to wear consistently– those are probably good.

Adventures in traveling for work to a state with a really bad Covid outbreak

This summer right before Delta, I got asked to give a talk in person in the fall.  I was feeling optimistic.  New cases were down to the single digits in my town, DC1 was vaccinated, and it seemed likely DC2 would start the vaccination process in early fall, maybe September.  So I said yes!  And I bought plane tickets.

Then Delta hit.  My county is getting 150-200/100,000 new cases a day (which may be an undercount because it is not always easy to get a same-day test).  DC1 has been exposed at school at least 6 times, maybe 7 (I literally lost count after the fifth time, plus I missed checking one day last week).   About 7% of the students in our school district have been diagnosed with Covid since school started.

But… the place where I was giving a talk had both a vaccine and mask mandate, so … safer than me teaching my class which has neither.

Still, I had to *get* to the place.

I chose to wear N95 Respokare masks  for the airplane portions of my trip.  These are extremely good but also expensive ($10/each for a disposable mask!).  When they’re fit perfectly I cannot smell my fancy Bath and Bodyworks hand sanitizer.  Even when not fitting perfectly, all smells are muted.  Except the smell of my breath, which turns out gets worse and worse as the day goes on without taking the mask off.  They are not incredibly comfortable– after removing it I definitely had lines on my cheeks.  The head straps can take some adjusting as well and don’t necessarily play well with pony tails.

During my day at the place I was talking, I just wore a much more comfortable Botn KN94 and did not have to smell my breath.  Everyone else was nicely masked indoors and mostly masked outdoors.  It was all really great and I felt a bit rejuvenated work-wise.

HOWEVER.  The rest of the world was not great.

The airport in my state wasn’t so bad– there were some noses, but not a whole lot of flagrant violations of not wearing masks except for people genuinely eating.  And these folks were pretty easy to avoid because there was a lot of space.

At the Hilton hotel in the state I went to, none of the front desk workers were wearing masks.  The only employees who were wearing masks were minority women (mostly cleaning staff, but also the woman at the concierge/parking desk outside), and nobody else was masked.  The white woman who seemed to be in charge got pretty angry at me “I’m fully vaccinated I do not need to mask” (silence from me) “FINE” when I asked if there was anybody working the front desk with a mask.  She went back to find a mask and never came back after yelling at me.  I’m not sure if I’m actually checked out of that hotel.

The taxi driver at the airport was masked, but the one from the hotel was not.  I asked him to put one on and he did.  I should have taken an uber!

The big problem was the airport in the other city.  At least 40% of the people there were not masked or were wearing masks inappropriately.  I could not find any place to sit down that was not within 6 feet of an unmasked jackhole.  Literally.  I would find a gate where a flight had just left and sit down, and a few minutes later, some guy would come by and then sit behind me and take his mask off.  Or a woman would sit next to me and then take her mask off to talk on the phone.  I started swearing at people.  I saw that one masked woman found a single spot lonely on the floor near where they were doing construction (far from any gates) to sit unbothered, but I didn’t want to bother her.  I took a picture of some asshole employee who was walking all over the airport wearing her mask well below her nose and she took the entire mask off and smiled at me and thanked me for taking her picture.  It was terrifying and exhausting.  And of course my flight was delayed.  Usually I’m able to sit down at an airport and read a novel and just kind of chill out.  Constant vigilance is NOT FUN.

Did I mention that the other city has one of the highest covid rates in the country right now?  I did not move my mask even to drink until I got to my home state airport.

Readers, I will not be traveling to an airport at any point in the near future.  I will probably continue to not leave my home/work/library front desk routine.  And after DC2 is fully vaccinated, I will likely limit my air travel to places that aren’t terrifying.

Teaching a first semester required course

This is a post initially started in 2011!  But apparently not much has changed in the intervening 10 years…

Teaching a first semester required course is really hard!

The reason for that is that you’re not just managing expectations about the class itself, but about the major and about what it means to be a college student (or graduate student!).

It’s ok to tell them that they need to be taking notes.  They honest to goodness don’t know.  A lot of them went to high schools where they could just get by on their smarts.  In college, at least in a challenging major like ours, they are going to need some memory aids.  It’s ok to tell them to put their cell phones away and laptops down.  I tell mine that they need to be taking notes with pencil and paper and they can only use a tablet if they have a stylus.  Trying to draw diagrams using a laptop without a stylus is a huge waste of time and takes them out of the more important parts of actually understanding the lecture.

We also added to our core syllabi information on how college is different from high school– they’ll be expected to think and deal with ambiguity and ask questions, not just memorize lists.  We tell them they should expect to be stressed out sometime in the middle of the semester and they will feel dumb, but at the end of it they will feel a lot smarter.  That seems to help a lot.

A lot of books written by white-haired white dudes will tell you to treat students like adults.  My teaching evals got a lot better when I started treating them like toddlers (keeping in mind that I would be an excellent pre-school teacher).  Students understand the “teacher” persona and seem happiest when a female teacher fits into a box that they can understand.  They like guidelines and structure and clear expectations while still being expected to learn and grow.

For those of you that teach, do you have any tips and tricks for students just starting out?  For those of you who have been taught, what do you wish your first semester teachers had done, or what did they do well?