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Crowther endorses Biden/Harris

October 3, 2020

After writing about Donald Trump with some frequency in 2016 and 2017, I have mostly avoided political posts since then. The main reasons for this have been (1) a lack of time, (2) a sense that everything I could say was being said more effectively by others, (3) a sense that my 20 readers were not hungry for my particular take on political issues, and (4) a desire to avoid making any of my students feel unwelcome, pressured to think a certain way, etc.

Nevertheless, a lack of words should not be interpreted as a lack of interest. So … to be as clear as possible …

(1) To any current or future students of mine who may happen to read this: please vote according to your own conscience. If you and I happen to differ politically, that is OK with me. I want to help you all learn biology regardless of whom you vote for.

(2) To everyone else: I will not attempt to summarize the Trump presidency, except to link to this article by the consistently perceptive and eloquent Slate writer Lili Loufbourow: Donald Trump is America’s Abusive Father. The article is super-harsh toward Trump, but he has spent the last four years earning this analogy, and I see no reason to shy away from it now. Trump is cruel even when the cruelty serves no larger goal. As one memorably titled article put it, the cruelty is the point.

My hope for November 3rd is that America rejects this wanton cruelty (along with the endless lying, etc. etc.) and gives Joe Biden and Kamala Harris a chance to lead us out of Trump’s dungeon.

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What it’s like to be with one’s soul mate

September 28, 2020

Scene: Last night, about 9pm, in the bedroom. LEILA is reading in bed. GREG is about to go back out to the living room to do some more work on his computer.

GREG: …Well, I guess I’ll say “good night,” then.

GREG circles to LEILA’S side of the bed.

[In unison:]

  • GREG: Say good night, Gracie.
  • LEILA: Say good night, Greggie.

There was no script, no actual planning, but that’s what happened.

Two people — both born decades after the Burns and Allen Show ruled the radio airwaves — neither one knowing much about the show or its stars — both chose the same exact moment to reference the show’s once-famous sign-off line for the first time.

Sometimes you just get lucky.

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Work-life balance: progress report #4

September 17, 2020

Work-wise, my summer is over at last. I start fall-quarter teaching on Monday. Related: I just revised my 46th and final chapter of PowerPoint slides, thus (barely) meeting my main summer goal of completing those revisions before the fall. I just have one more small step, which is to post the slides to the course website, thereby locking them down (i.e., preventing myself from tampering with them further).

I feel good, overall, about these versions of the slides. I created a bunch of good new Test Question Templates and improved some of my previous ones. I also organized each slideset into 3-5 logical subsections, which should reduce student confusion and should help me chunk my video lectures into shorter segments.

I can almost imagine declaring these slides good enough to reuse as is next quarter.

But first we will find out whether starting the quarter with finished slides makes my quarter a healthier experience, or just enables obsessive over-revision of other aspects of my teaching.

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The ritual of the post-bath crayons

August 19, 2020

Every night I bathe my kids. (The younger ones, that is. The 13-year-old showers by himself.) This consists of the usual steps: remove the clothes, put him in the tub, fill the tub with water, and so forth. Not a ground-breaking protocol.

But here’s the odd part: every night, after I extricate my not-quite-2-year-old from the tub and start to dry him, he asks for the tray of bath crayons. I hold out the tray, like a waiter offering hors d’oeuvres. Ben carefully selects the orange and blue crayons, and orally confirms his choices. (“Owange! Boo!”) And then, after about 30 seconds of additional drying, he asks to return the crayons to the tray, and does so.

During this time there is no actual usage of the crayons. Ben doesn’t even pretend to draw with them; he just holds them in his hand. And yet, to him, this sequence is delightful. He beams in anticipation of taking the crayons, and he beams in anticipation of putting them back. The ritual itself is the point, somehow. There seems to be a satisfaction and a comfort in knowing what to do next, and in having someone to do it with.

This scene may be poignant for me in part because it reminds me of a challenging-for-me aspect of parenting, namely, enjoying the presence of one’s kids, even if nothing in particular is happening.

When I’m holding a crayon, my mind is quick to ask, “OK, what’s going on here? Are we looking for a certain color, or are we ready to draw some animals, or what?” But what if I could just let the crayon sit in my hand while I feel its weight, admire its features, contemplate its potential?

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Work-life balance: progress report #3

July 31, 2020

I’ve made some tangible progress since my last report.

Perhaps the biggest initial problem with my summer plans was that I had a million different “important” things that I “needed” to work on. OK, maybe not a million, but at least six: online labs (both for Human Anatomy and for Human Physiology), online lectures (for both courses), biology teaching songs, not-yet-written manuscripts (two or three), further development and dissemination of Test Question Templates (TQTs), and old/ongoing email.

When faced with a list like this one, I’m generally likely to either (A) focus on my favorite item (unlikely to be the most important one) while neglecting everything else, or (B) bounce back and forth between several items without making much progress on any of them.

To avoid such outcomes, I needed a clearer prioritization of tasks and some simple-yet-useful metrics of progress. I decided that my #1 priority for the summer would be editing my slides, in part because that was compatible with a simple-yet-useful metric: if I did six chapters’ worth of slides every week, all of the slides would be done by the start of the fall quarter.

During the first week of the six-chapters-per-week regimen (July 20-24), I managed to complete six chapters. However, it took most of the working hours that I had not previously committed to other meetings and deadline-sensitive tasks.

During the second week (July 27-31), I again completed six chapters. By cramming in some extra work in the evenings, I was able to devote one full weekday to a family hike.

If I can keep this up for six more weeks, I’ll be in great shape slide-wise.

But don’t ask me about my email inbox. Or my manuscripts. Or my labs…

slide_example_2

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“Hamilton” as a parable about work-life balance

July 13, 2020

It probably doesn’t need to be said that Alexander Hamilton and I have little in common. In watching Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece on Disney Plus, though, I couldn’t help but notice certain parallels.

Hamilton, as portrayed by Miranda (and by his primary source, a biography by Ron Chernow), is a workaholic who “write[s] like [he’s] running out of time” and who devotes considerable (possibly excessive) thought to his legacy. When George Washington sings to Hamilton, “History has its eyes on you,” it seems like an unnecessary warning. I almost expected Hamilton to fire back, “Well of COURSE it does!”

As I continue to struggle with work-life balance, one of the recurring themes is that certain tasks take way longer than they need to, simply because I want them to come out extra-well. My revision of my slides is a fine example.  Nobody is insisting that I make five hours’ worth of changes to these slides. Nobody is even recommending it. In fact, everybody is recommending against it. Yet away I go again into my PowerPoint time warp. Why?

Gaining a better understanding of my perfectionism is one major goal of my therapy. Where does it come from? What dials it up or down?

Here is a first draft of an answer. For some (often writing-related) tasks, I hold myself to certain high standards as a way of convincing myself that I am important and deserving of attention and praise.

That’s pretty self-centered, isn’t it?  Yes, but most people are self-centered.  My advantage is that I am relatively conscious of my selfish tendencies, and can compensate accordingly.

With that decently developed self-awareness, I can admit a personal desire to, in the words of Hamilton, “not throw away my shot.” Part of me wants to become famous, even if that fame is limited, say, to my own campus, or to fellow singing science instructors.

Obviously, it’s OK — admirable, even — to try to do certain things well enough that others might be impressed, and might remember what I did. But if I continue to define huge chunks of my life as “my shot” — always important enough to consume all of the hours I have available — then the work will never be under control, and I will never have a shot at a normal life.

 

crowther

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Work-life balance: progress report #2

July 9, 2020

Today I forced myself to buckle down and revise some specific course materials for the fall. I chose to revise some PowerPoint slides corresponding to Chapter 2 of our physiology textbook.

The good news?  I did it! I kept my nose to the proverbial grindstone and made a bunch of useful revisions. The slideset is now clearer and better organized, and it gives the students more and better opportunities to take notes and do practice problems.

The bad news?  Revising this one file — a file that was already in decent shape — took me FIVE HOURS.

This is, more or less, the fundamental issue that I encounter over and over again. I like revising course materials; I like making them more student-friendly. (I’m only half-kidding when I tell people that my pedagogical specialty is reinventing the wheel.) But taking five hours to revise one chapter’s worth of slides makes me the poster child of unsustainable behavior.  I must be able to work more efficiently than that… Right?

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Work-life balance: (lack-of-)progress report #1

July 8, 2020

As I’ve mentioned, work-life balance remains elusive for me.

This summer I’m approaching the problem with a two-part plan: (A) psychotherapy and (B) a vacation from paid teaching so that I can get a good jump on preparations for fall.

I didn’t turn in spring-quarter grades until June 23, and then I had to play inbox-catchup for a while, so I’ve been slow to admit that part (B) is not going well. But it isn’t.

Today — thanks to the continuing blessing of a live-in mother-in-law who cares for our two young boys — I had many hours in which to work. 8:10am to 4:30pm, to be precise.

Many people would LOVE to have that kind of a workday.  So what did I do with this wonderful gift of abundant work time?

Well, I worked on a presentation for this Friday (~1.5 hours), worked on a COVID song-in-progress (~1.5 hours), read and wrote emails (mostly work-related; ~2 hours), went for a bike ride (~1 hour), ate (~0.5 hour), hung out with my 13-year-old (~0.5 hour) … and I’m not sure where the rest of the time went.

Conspicuously absent from all of this, of course, was any specific progress on fall teaching.

I didn’t feel as though I was being grossly irresponsible, and yet I made zero progress on the long-term goal that is my best ticket to a healthy fall quarter.

I think the next step has to be something like requiring myself to spend at least three hours a day, every day, to specific fall curriculum issues (revisions of PowerPoint slides, revisions of lab exercises, etc.). And fit in the email, music, etc. around that, rather than vice versa.

If I need to sacrifice some summer fun in order to have a sane, not-completely-exhausting fall, I will.

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The civil war continues

June 11, 2020

A few days before the murder of George Floyd sparked a new round of protests, our family happened to start watching the 1990 Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War. We finished it last night.

I’m not going to write about the documentary as a whole, but I thought the segment below — from the last night of the documentary — was sadly relevant to the current upheaval.

Here is what historian Barbara Fields says starting at 3:40 (taken from a 1987 interview archived here: https://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_509-2r3nv99t98).

I think what we need to remember most of all is that the Civil War is not over until we today have done our part in fighting it, as well as understanding what happened when the Civil War generation fought it. William Faulkner … said once that history is not was, it’s is, and what we need to remember about the Civil War is that the Civil War is, in the present as well as in the past…. The generation that fought the war, the generation that argued over the definition of the war, the generation that had to pay the price in blood, that had to pay the price in blasted hopes, in the lost future, also established a standard that will not mean anything until we have finished the work. You can say, there’s no such thing as slavery anymore, we’re all citizens, but if we’re all citizens then we have a task to do to make sure that that too is not a joke. If some citizens live in houses and others live on the street, the Civil War is still going on. It’s still to be fought, and regrettably, it can still be lost.

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The whistling is all around you — if you listen

June 4, 2020

Here is a quick story to illustrate what awareness of racism looks like in a well-intentioned but insufficiently attentive white guy.

In 2014 or 2015, I read Claude Steele’s book “Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us And What We Can Do.” The title refers to a black graduate student (Brent Staples, now of the New York Times) who would whistle classical music to make his presence seem less threatening to white people on the streets of Chicago.

At the time, my reaction to this anecdote was:
* Yes, racism is real, important, and tragic.
* What an efficient, clever way of putting everyone at ease and avoiding conflict!

Note that my reaction did NOT include the following:
* What a shame that this innocent black guy had to take it upon himself to calm everyone else.
* Gee, I wonder whether such defense mechanisms are common among people of color?

Now fast-forward to the present. George Floyd has just become the latest unarmed, nonthreatening black man to be killed by out-of-control police officers. I come across the article It Does Not Matter if You are Good by R. Eric Thomas. And some more grim realities finally start to sink in:
* Whistling Vivaldi, in the metaphorical sense, is VERY common among people of color, and especially among black men.
* It’s deeply unfair that potential victims of racism should have to whistle as a means of protecting themselves.
* No matter how loud or how tuneful the whistling is, it doesn’t always save you.

This reminds me of another metaphor — one that reveals the seemingly cheerful opening of Steele’s title to maybe not be so cheerful after all.

“Whistling in the wind” is an old phrase referring to an action that is utterly ineffectual.

Enough whistling!

whistling