Real Genius

A friend had never seen Real Genius, and I managed to do a good enough sales job that he wanted to watch it. I certainly had not seen the movie in the past decade, at least not with anyone who hadn’t seen it before and loved it for all the science nerdiness and adoration of clever practical jokes.

When I watch something with someone else, I am only partly in my own experience. Part of me is thinking and seeing along with them. Seeing this film that I have loved for years with someone who wasn’t already a fan meant that I was forced to see it with adult eyes. I was cringing at the way the women were treated, at the casual bro-culture evident in the film. From the opening scene with the meeting room full of men casually joking about weapons of war, to Chris Knight’s interview at Darlington Labs where, despite his juvenile humor, he gets an overture from the sexy Sherry Nugil who is trying to sleep with the Top Ten Minds in America. All of whom are male of course.

Mitch, the main character, is as sweet as ever. 15 years old, the youngest student admitted to Pacific Tech (loosely based on CalTech) mid-year, he was out-of-place in high school and is clearly uncomfortable in his early awkward moments at PacificTech. The arc of this story is predictable; he starts to meet his kind of people. He is taken under the wing of Chris Knight, a legend in the National Physics Club, a former prodigy, now grown into a confident, rebellious and muscular young manhood. Chris is soon to graduate, but he missed his younger self and so he asked Professor Hathaway if he could room with Mitch.

Next enters my favorite character, Jordan. Jordan, with her short-hair, an incredibly fast cadence to her speech, always arrives on scene with some interesting device she’s built herself and an experiment to test it to see if it works as she intended. Jordan is the saving light of this movie for me. 19 years old and hyperkinetic, she was, undoubtedly, the vision I had for myself of the sort of girl that I’m not exactly, but that maybe I would want to be.

Real Genius (1985). You are showing your age. Maybe we have made some progress in the past 31 years. I still love the practical jokes. I still look at Jordan and hope I see myself. The juvenile humor doesn’t quite work anymore. Maybe it shouldn’t have back then either.


A friend posted an article about the experience women have getting older (, and also on non-traditional lifestyles for women. It’s just a little bit unfocused, declaring at one juncture, “Sociobiologically speaking, in caveman days, if we could no longer bear children our use-value dropped sharply and inevitably,” then, at the beginning of the very next paragraph, “What’s so bad about growing older when it’s revered in almost every society except ours?” Still, as an older … middle aged … woman who has gotten through most of her adulthood unmarried, unpartnered, and certainly unchildrened, I snug right into this demographic, even if my love of consistency and lack of fashion sense leaves me with an eyebrow raised at the article.

It brings out the right note of ambivalence for me. I never intended this path, but here I am, and truly, while it has a generous share of lonely, there are some very nice things about where I am and who I am. As the article says, you can’t imagine being 47 when you are 27. Maybe even those who ended up exactly where they expected to be get to this point have to reimagine their sense of themselves.

Articles like this bring all the niggly little questions up. I wonder if I should continue to take the occasional (surely it is only occasional) selfie or to ask friends to take photos of me, and then post those photos on social media. There’s that nagging doubt that perhaps I should apologize for the grey hairs that are appearing in my eyebrows, the lines appearing on my face, especially those in the middle of my forehead, my slightly crooked front teeth, my stomach, and all the other physical imperfections.

Seriously? Not a bit, but I do have to admit my own inner critic often has a lot to say on those topics, especially as I begin to see age creep into my face. Even when I recognize it’s ridiculous, getting beauty culture out of my head and that inner critic to pipe down is often tough. For women, being wanted and being worthy are so intermingled with being pretty. (see Even when we know better.

While we’re at it, this.

Painful truth

Dear Students,

I know I upset one of you today, and goodness knows whether I will upset more of you tomorrow when I actually hand back homework.

The student I talked to today worked very hard and felt he got robbed on his score. Unfortunately, he just got the math wrong. Scores in general were lower than I would have liked them to be. I know I caught some students out — they were not thinking that 2 weeks to do homework means 2 weeks of homework to be done. I know others got caught thinking that if a few problems were easy then they all would be easy.

I don’t know if I’m harder or more conscientious than other instructors. I do know that I believe that all of you can master this material and get it right. I know that I am going to push you to get to that level.

If I tell you that you got something right when you really didn’t, I am leading you into complacency when you are capable of doing more and doing better. I would rather have you angry with me and have you figure out how to make a stronger, better effort to get things right and understand why you are right than have you satisfied with your grade and mediocre at solving problems.

Would you rather believe a pleasant lie or know a painful truth? I have always lived on the side of painful truths. Today feels like one.

Honestly? I want you to like me. I want you to enjoy my class. I want you to learn a lot. I want you to grow. I know that all those things go together. If you hate me, and you hate my class, learning a lot and growing are less likely to occur. But if I have to give you a false sense of the merit of your work to make you like me, that won’t work either.

So, if you get this homework back and you need to be angry with me, I encourage you to be angry with me. Anger at me that keeps you motivated and working is better than anger at yourself that is paralyzing and makes you think, “Why should I even try? Why should I even bother?” Or worse, fall into inaction because of those thoughts.

I am a grown woman, with a strong soul. I can handle your anger.

That said, I hope that I can bring honesty and encouragement and grace and motivation to you. I hope that I can be someone who helps you to believe in yourself. I hope that I can hold you to high standards, and motivate you to hold yourself to high standards and help you see that you are capable of meeting them. Even when the work is far, far from easy.

That’s what I want for you. That’s what I want for me. That’s what I want for this class, and every other class that I teach.

With sincerity, and encouragement, and even, yes, with love,

Dr. Jinx

Bruised all over

I think the title says it all about how I feel about last week and its meetings. I feel like I was mugged and beaten, and the signs should show all over my body. In reality, all the damage is to the soul, all invisible, except for those who look closely.

I know I’ll heal. I knew this might hurt. I knew I might get nowhere. This feels like nowhere. Or marginal progress towards anywhere.

So what happened? First, I hope I don’t have to justify to anyone here why I involved the faculty ombudsperson. After all the misunderstandings I’ve had with the department over my job duties, when it appears that now we have a new one, I went to her and asked her to attend the meetings with me. This was, I think, a good thing overall. Documentation!

One conversation I needed to have was with the Principal Investigator (PI) of the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grant. I am the co-Principal Investigator. I always thought that made me co-responsible for the program. I’ve got a lot of good qualifications and successes with undergraduates and research, and it was logical that’s why I was asked to be involved with the program.

I’ve heard third hand reports of a meeting the PI had with the department chair discussing my position with the REU and credit I should get for the position. Some of what I heard did not match with my understanding. It’s not fair to just get angry. You have to ask the other person their side.

Perhaps he was offended that the ombudsperson was there. Perhaps I offended him. I don’t know. But when I told him I was hearing stories about this conversation and wanted to know what was going on directly from him, he replied with a hostile, “That was a private conversation and I will not discuss it.” Private my ass when I’ve heard about it third hand. But that was certainly a conversation stopper, or hook, and I was hooked and off balance from it.

Things didn’t improve from there. The conversation felt hostile to me. The ombudsperson felt that the PI was apathetic and ambivalent about the REU, rather than hostile. In the course of the conversation, I discovered my duties during the year consisted of nothing more than

  1. Assembling the applications from students.
  2. Sending out acceptance and rejection letters.
  3. Arranging dormitory accommodations for the students.
  4. Sending them an informational email about College Station and TAMU.
  5. Arranging a get-together every other week in the program with lunch.
  6. Arranging for them to give their final presentations.

I was flabbergasted. I confirmed that list more than once to make sure I got that down correctly.

I’ve been doing a hell of a lot more than that. No wonder we want to devalue my contribution if this is all the contribution that is expected. I made sure to clarify that in his mind my performance would be considered excellent — by him — if I did nothing more than that. Yes.

I asked about all of the other expectations that have been placed on me, usually in the form of statements of what my predecessor in the position did. I got dressed down for not, until now, formally requesting a list of expected duties. No, instead I asked, “What needs to be done?” I asked, “How can I help?” I asked, “What is expected here?”

Let’s notice something else about this list. This list is entirely secretarial. And presented to a woman Ph.D. — the only such involved with the program — who has a solid track record in mentoring undergraduate students in research. How insulting can you get?

The last issue I will discuss is whether I was asked to bring a research project into the program last summer. I recall that I asked what needs to be done to find research problems for our group. I was told some came from the PI and his collaborators, but that my predecessor usually brought statistics related projects in and mentored those. This set me up for the expectation that I should do this too, and I busted my ass to make it happen. I mentored two students solo. I was informed by the PI that I had done this voluntarily, for my own professional development. I am sure I commented that I thought it would be good for my professional development to try to do this, but that’s not where I recall us starting from.

The fact is, that I felt obligated to figure out how to get this done, and at a fairly high cost to myself, I did.

It has done me good in the long run, but ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

I walked out of that meeting, back to my office, asked the ombudsperson to please shut the door. I buried my head in my hands, and I started sobbing.

I had less than 20 minutes to pull myself together and get to my next meeting, with the department chair, who seemed rather unconcerned about my report of this previous meeting.

This is still bothering me. Greatly. I have a meeting with all the REU mentors on Monday and I am trying to figure out how to handle it.

With my head held high, and with professionalism. Obviously. But I’d rather hide in my closet.

It was hard to sit there and listen to someone devalue me professionally like that. Especially after the incident this past spring. When I know I’ve been trying my guts out to help, to do what’s right, to do it well. And when I realize I’ve not been given resources my predecessor had to get the job done. I did do it well. I did a fantastic job. Then to find out the job requirements are so minimal and different from what I thought I was supposed to do, and all that other stuff is considered “volunteer work”. I know I was asking good questions. I know I didn’t go into this with a cautious, document everything, legal mindset. I trusted that we all had a common goal we were working for.

Common goals aside, apparently it is more important to put a lecturer in her place than to make sure this program runs well. I’m disappointed in the PI. Disappointed in the department. And disappointed that my internal radar didn’t give me warning that I was dealing with people who are untrustworthy.

This is yet another reason why I don’t want to stay at Texas A&M. Dammit, you idiots. I have done so much for you. Is it too much to ask that you value me accordingly? Good luck finding my replacement.

Ups and Downs

Another interview tomorrow. This group took me hiking today; that was cool. Someone noted my interest in geocaching and put GPS coordinates along with the building and room numbers on my schedule for tomorrow. That was a nice touch. I laughed out loud. I sent a thank you.

All the photos in this post are from the hike.

* * *

At dinner tonight we were talking about the interview process and who to ask which questions. The first thing that came up was that when I meet with the Dean. That’s the person to ask if I have questions about pay, promotion, etc.. I do have some concerns about this; I think I have qualifications beyond entry level assistant professor. How do they intend to handle this? How do I intend to handle this?

Immediately, I can feel my anxiety level rising.

spiny seedpod

All of a sudden, I am acutely aware of all of the spiky things, and scared I will get hurt.

Breathe, breathe, breathe. (Yes, those breaths were taken that fast!) No right answer. No wrong answer. You get information about who you are dealing with (and they, likewise, get information on me).

With all the oh-so-encouraging information on women and negotiating, this thought is giving me a high stress moment. I want to win at this, but I don’t have a strategy for handling the conversation.

Picture of thin ice.

Negotiating can feel like skating on thin ice.

But. But. One of the secrets to negotiating jiu jitsu is to establish your worth and the benefit to the organization in giving you what you want. Maybe I don’t have to know how I’m going to handle this. At least, not yet. One of my big questions for the Dean — in fact, for everyone — is what could I do that would really make them happy if they hired me for the position? What can I do to knock the ball out of the ballpark in this job?

My first order of business is to find out what that is, and whether this is something I want to and can deliver. My second order of business is to get the offer. My third order of business is to negotiate the package that gets me out to the position that I want to accept.

Birch trees

There are many trees and many facets to this process and negotiation. Don’t lose sight of the forest, which is, ultimately, everyone’s satisfaction.

One step at a time. One step at a time, I can walk around the world. Watch me. But sometimes the secret is in knowing which step to take, and which direction to take it in.

I’ve negotiated in my past life. Sometimes I think I’ve been punished for it. That can definitely happen again. I can’t control what other people do. When I know more about these people, I will be better able to predict what they do. Regardless, I can only control me. Sometimes not even that! And the best job I can, right now, is to find out about this job, this university, this community, and how I would fit into it. What I can do to make it better. How I think I can become better in it.




leaf in a nest of thorns

Even in a nest of thorns, you may find one perfect leaf.

The other side?

Since I wrote and published Half-Assed, a mild case of concern has set in. Was I fair? Did I see it from the other side? What have I missed? One known cognitive bias is that we tend to rate experiences not on their overall happiness, but on their peak intensities (good or bad) and on how they end. And that relationship surely had a painful and unpleasant end, which certainly has colored my view of all of it.[1]

Another aspect of my thinking is from watching the video at the Representation Project, about judging men and their maleness. Men are supposed to be the fixers in the relationship, and they are supposed to do a good job of it. When one fails to do so, whether through sloppiness or lack of knowledge, we are (meaning I am) quick to judge.

What if he opened up the electric plug, and understood generally how it worked, but couldn’t quickly come up with a way to shorten the wires and strip the plastic coating? He could have asked — I would have had a suggestion — but men aren’t supposed to ask. There are numerous “How to Repair It” books around the house, all of which I purchased.

What if his access to the resources was reduced, not really knowing the books were there, since those were mine and not his. Unable to ask, because guys don’t ask. Not conscientious enough to really care about doing it right. “I put it back together, and it works, even though it is ugly and doesn’t look right. Good enough. And I don’t really like this vacuum anyhow, partially because I didn’t pick it out and partially because I just don’t like vacuuming (who does?), so maybe we should get a new one.”

I have an advantage of sorts in that I’m a female. I’m not supposed to know how to fix things. I know I can generally learn from a set of instructions, and so I provided myself with sets of instructions. I’m conscientious, which you might call anal-retentive if you are mad at me. If I am going to do a job, and I can do it right, I get stubborn and I will do it right. I’m experienced. I’ve been living alone and I’ve owned a house for over a decade. If something breaks, I’m the first line of defense for fixing it. I might not have started out as confident or competent, but it grows.

And as for the rest, it is one thing to have an attitude or opinion of really valuing communication in a relationship, but it is another thing to know how to do it. How would you learn when your parents never do such a thing? When your previous girlfriend made it impossible to do such a thing? How would you know how to deal with someone who tells you up-front what she needs and wants? Would that be a good thing or a threat? Maybe someone more confident would have been able to make more of it. But maybe this just wasn’t him. Not even when I was the one who was putting forth the effort and trying.

It’s that thing about responsibility. You can’t ever really give someone responsibility. The other person has to take it. You can give all you want, but if the other person doesn’t take, it doesn’t matter.

“What else could I have done,” is the question I am always asking myself. I don’t have an answer, and I don’t think I ever will. A relationship, a good relationship, requires two capable, responsible, willing, and invested partners. I am not sure I had that. I am pretty sure of my own investment, even though there were times I had a hard time holding it together. I know what I was willing to do. The one thing I saw clearly at the end was that if it was going to get better, he had to make the move, to make the commitment toward that happening. It wasn’t there. I think it had been missing in all the earlier conversations we’d had. Maybe it wasn’t neglect. Maybe it wasn’t not caring. Maybe it was just not knowing how or not being confident enough to try.

But once again, here we are. There it is. It is my job to make peace with this. I hope that I am; I hope you can see I am trying; one slow step at a time.

1. For more information on this, I read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. For a discussion on experienced vs. remembered well-being see page 4 of this NYTimes article for a discussion on duration-neglect and the peak-end rule.

I promise that in the future I will wear underwear while teaching class.

Lately I’ve been looking through old teaching evaluations. About a year and a half ago I taught a “monster” course, meaning the initial enrollment was 300 students.

My biggest challenge with the class was to keep it a human environment. Under such circumstance, it is really easy to depersonalize students, and for students to depersonalize an instructor.

I pulled up those teaching evaluations today. There was a lot of negativity, but one comment leapt out at me in particular

“It would be nice if she would wear undergarments because many people have noticed it when she is walking around the room trying to get to know us.”

I had to laugh, but WTF? I am guilty of many a fashion crime (ugly shoes including Birkenstocks and sandals with socks comes to mind), but failing to wear appropriate foundational garments (bra and undies) doesn’t happen.

Studies show that the chief targets of student incivility are women and young faculty members. It’s pretty easy to conclude this is probably a disgruntled male student making a derogatory sexual comment to me.

I am certainly not the first female faculty member to deal with comments like this. (Aside: if you have any gems, please do share so that we can all appreciate them.) My immediate supervisor was appalled at the comment, and said “I have NEVER seen you inappropriately dressed or without undergarments!!!” Since I’m unlikely to be interviewed for the university paper, I probably won’t have to put up with a hostile follow up conversation with the dean either.

Along the way of joking and thinking about this incident today, I read about

  1. The not-so benevolent nature of benevolent sexism
  2. Dressing for academia (as a woman)
  3. That I should wear makeup in order to look more competent.
  4. Handy tips for our male allies in academia.

The Advantages to Being Female

One of my students was rubbing his face this morning in a characteristic gesture that I recognize from my past week of extreme stress.

“Hey,” I called out, “is everything all right?”

He told me he was really stressed. I don’t know what I said; we got started with class. We talked for a moment about questions and concerns with regards to the exam tomorrow night. Then I taught my lesson.

I had a crowd after class, someone wanting to learn some math, some concerned with logistics, and the young man who was rubbing his face, who wanted to tell me what was up.

Apparently he made an error in recording his exam schedule, and missed an exam he was supposed to take yesterday at the disability center. The instructor wouldn’t make alternative arrangements, and he has to take the exam with the rest of the class without the additional time he’d normally get.

You don’t see young men get to the crying point often, and when you do, you know they are under a phenomenal amount of stress.

You can’t bullshit someone in a situation like that. “Oh, it will be all right,” that’s just empty words. We know it’s just one exam, but to this student at this time, it’s the entire world.

You want comfort at times like that from a caring authority figure who can let you know absolutely that you are okay and you are not a fuck up.

I’ve been paying careful attention to how this one has been doing all semester; he’s not getting the disability accommodation on my quizzes, and it’s my responsibility to make sure that situation is working for both of us.

I put my hand on his shoulder, and I told him that if he was doing in that other class what he was doing in mine, and he could calm down between now and that exam, that I was confident that he would get through it okay. More than okay. I’m convinced he’ll do well.

I know that’s still just empty words; it requires my authority and his conviction of my ability to stand in judgment to carry that message through. It couldn’t make everything better, but I think it helped.


  1. You have a right to your feelings.
  2. You have a right to set boundaries to feel safe.
  3. Anyone who attempts to revoke your right to your feelings or to set boundaries is someone scary.

Now, it may just be that the person is clueless, but lack of empathy on this is a danger signal that you cannot ignore.

Predators and bullies will try to negate your feelings and push you into situations where you don’t feel safe. The only defense you have is to own your feelings and to own your boundaries.

A predator will flatter you to let your guard down. A predator will cast you as a bitch if you don’t do what they are asking.

You know how this plays out in a bar: “I’m just trying to buy you a drink! You don’t want me to buy you a drink? Why are you being such a bitch?” No one has the right to argue with you when you say no. This is the clarion call of the predator. Hell, yes, I absolutely am such a bitch. I do not want your drink. I said so clearly. Now buzz off.

But a bar is an easy situation. What happens when this is your boss? “Can’t we just have a cup of coffee and talk this over just the two of us?” If you don’t feel safe, you have every right to request that a neutral third party is present. But for many it’s harder to set this boundary.

I think I am lucky that I do not find either of these situations ambiguous. Trigger my lack of trust, and I will take action to protect myself. Even so, I still get the arguments.

On this count, I am flabbergasted.

I am shocked by how many people are unable to see or unaware that when a boundary like this is set, that if you wish to reestablish trust, the only way to go about it is to be very very respectful of the boundary. No sneaking around it, no flattering your way out of it, just respect and forthrightness.

This is one of those topics that makes me see red.

If there is one book you should read on this topic, it is The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker.

So Beautiful

The first time a man talks about meeting his wife, he almost always … always? says, “She was so beautiful.”

The first thing. The most important thing about women, it always seems, is our looks.

Never, “she told a joke, and it was so funny I laughed until I had tears running down my face, and that’s when I knew I wanted to marry her.”

Never, “she presented the most elegant explanation of why the fluid flow should behave that way, and I knew I was in love.”

Never, “She broke the stack of three boards with a flying side-kick on the first try. I had to go meet her.”

Never, “I heard her reading a poem that she wrote, and I was entranced.”

Never, “She was so kind to me when I first arrived …”

Do we women talk about men the same way? I know I have dated men who, on first (and even second) appraisal, were not particularly attractive, though they grew to be attractive to me because I cared about them. And while sometimes, yes, it is looks that get us interested, often it is something else, something more meaningful about him that makes us first want to know more or fall in love. Or so I think. Am I wrong?

And how many times have we had a lover tell us that if only we were prettier, then they’d love us more/want to marry us?

I swear if a man ever dares say that to me again, I am going to throw him out of my life so hard he bounces on the way out.

Why is it always the first thing we care about with women is the way they look? Aren’t we capable of anything deeper?

I want to tell the young women in my life that, “You are so much more than that.” But there are days when I am afraid that to the external world, it just isn’t so.

Is it any different in the LGBT community?

Will it ever be better in society in general?