Advice to starting profs

Someone on Reddit was nervous about starting as a new professor at a new school and in a new city. Here is my idiosyncratic advice:

  • In the first few months, you’ll probably get quite a few invites from people for a coffee/beer. Obviously, take them up on this. But once that academic tradition is done, it’s easy to be kind of left on your own. You’ll need to make an effort to find likeminded people and get together on the regular.
  • I’ve never done this, but the new academic faculty who seem to be happy have formed informal support groups among the other new faculty. These don’t need to be in your field / department / unit. At least then you know you aren’t the only one feeling like you are on Mars, and often those in this cohort will find resources that are super useful locally at the university or in the city. If your university does some kind of an intake workshop at the university level, this is a good chance to find these folks, but otherwise just start looking for new starts and do that coffee/beer thing. This is easier if you are in a large department/school that has done a lot of recent hiring, since you may have a group of folks in cognate fields.
  • Make friends with the department admin staff. Doesn’t have to be social, going out bowling friends, but bend over backwards to be nice to them. Often they get the brunt of institutional pressures without a lot of recognition for this. And they know how things actually work. If you don’t pretend you know what you’re doing, and you don’t assume it’s their job to help you, but instead actually go out of your way to be nice and even help them out if it’s something you can do, it will be to your benefit. One such person actually saved my career at one point of political intrigue. So, you know, be nice to everyone, but especially the lead staff people.
  • Make friends outside of your unit. It’s kind of crazy to assume that the people in your own small department are going to be the ones you are most simpatico with. Some of the people I was most interested in talking to were always in some far-flung department other than my own, and sometimes I missed these folks by being focused on what was happening in my unit. If you engage in some form of university level service, it may be one way to run into these folks.
  • Be thinking about your next job. No one will tell you this and it’s not something I would tell my own new hires. And consider where this advice is coming from: someone who has switched TT jobs twice. Of course, you should understand the explicit expectations for tenure, but I have always looked to what will make me look good on an application to another university or outside of academia. Since you need external reviews anyway, it’s basically the same thing as moving toward tenure, and if you actually can move it opens up your possibilities quite a bit if this university–or academia as a whole–isn’t a great fit. I was already doing this in grad school, and so continuing as faculty wasn’t that much of a change for me. And when the university did a major restructuring a couple of years before tenure, it bothered me less than some, since I knew I could likely jump ship and get a good position elsewhere.
  • Don’t worry, be happy. Honestly, it’s an adventure. The academic life front-loads so much of this with sunk costs in terms of getting the doctorate and a research portfolio before even landing your first job, if you are so lucky. Those sunk costs make people worry too much about screwing up instead of having fun with what they have. You wouldn’t have been hired if they didn’t think you could do the job. Mostly, keep doing what you’ve already been doing. Mentoring is what you’ve already done with colleagues as a grad student. Your research is likely already on a trajectory for tenure: just keep building a research agenda and producing solid work. And add to this a bit of fun. Remember why you started all this and don’t put off that odd project until post-tenure. Be bold.
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Kids’ Carnival

I ‘ve been away from blogging long enough that I forgot we didn’t do comments any more. Otherwise, this would merely be a comment on the teaser to his new book Henry Jenkins recently posted. He is looking at the ways in which authority plays out in children’s literature, and how it reflects the values of the parents who buy them, and the culture in which they are bringing up children. He draws on Mary Poppins as an example.

And yes, the choice of a Nanny is laid out in stark terms, but Poppins is also part of what seems to be a much broader trend in children’s books (and now movies), the inversion of power: kids being kids without the pesky interference of grown-ups. It is extraordinarily difficult to escape this theme. Indeed, from the film side, what is particularly striking about Mary Poppins as a film is that while they may have a neglectful parent, at least he’s not dead. Disney seems to be fascinated by orphaning children–way better to off them then to deal with the complex power relationships, perhaps?

And you don’t really get away from the dead or absent parents. Maybe it is attributable to the success of Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking or Ronia, but it’s hard to name a book that doesn’t abscond with the parents early on, leaving children to find them (Artemis Fowl) or–in the case of orphans (like Hugo or Harry Potter or Nobody Owens, or… well… all the rest)–their replacement. In Poppins, as Jenkins notes, the specification is more explicit, but the motivation of many of these stories is to describe the role of the parent in their absence.

I think Jenkins is arguing in part that these are intended to appeal to parents, who buy the books. I suppose that is true to a certain extent, but it does not explain why parents buy books in which there are no parents, or where the parents are dullards. I was thrilled by the books for young children by Andrea Beaty, and when we found Iggy Peck architect, not long after my first son was born, it was just the kind of story I wanted to tell him: a story about a young person defying expectations, understanding the power of his own imagination and creativity, even when the teachers and parents might not. It was a story of defying authority.

That’s Pippi, too, of course. Lindgren says in an interview she isn’t sure why she made Pippi so strong. (I think we might guess, as she wrote it while injured, at some of the reasons, but that’s a dangerous game.) She does suggest that publishers were concerned about promoting a book with a willful and strong leading character. There are a couple of possibilities here.

One, and I suspect the simplest, is that we don’t know how to write good parents. It isn’t easy to do. Many people see their own kids or themselves as kids as the heroes in their own minds and their own stories. Too many of us as parents and authors see ourselves in George Banks, the father in Mary Poppins.

But I suspect, that these books are also intended as a funhouse mirror, a sneaky way of establishing what parents should and shouldn’t be by their absence. What better way to show parents what they should be than to get rid of them? And what happens when these parents get out of the way? Kids always end up demonstrating that they are self-sufficient, capable, creative leaders. (That doesn’t map well to outcomes for those who lose their parents, who often have difficulty finding that stride.) These kids may not need or want a ward, but they do want a home: they want people who love and accept them, who are proud of them and cherish them. The parents many of us wish we saw in ourselves.

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Pandemic: The Return

We are coming up on one year of near complete isolation. While “conservative” has never been an adjective I would use for our family, in this instance we have been. We saw little reason to risk our health unnecessarily, and knew that removing ourselves as a node from the network also increased the survivabilityin some small wayof those around us. And a large part of that has been the lack of certainty: a year in, and with three vaccines in circulation, we still don’t fully understand the way in which COVID-19 affects the body.

This is particularly true of children. There seems to be a broad consensus that kids are slightly less likely to contract the disease caused by the virus in circulation, and far less likely to have serious symptoms or die from it. There have been a number of concerns that, for example, mutations might change this equation. And there are the scary stories of long-haul COVID among young teens. This uncertainty makes me reluctant to expose my kids unnecessarily.

Luckily, the kids’ school, Phoenix Modern, has been enormously responsive and thoughtful in their approach. They have made space for kids throughout whose parents could not keep them home, and also for parents like us who pulled our kids home early on in the pandemic. They have rapidly adapted to online learning, and made more than the best out of a bad situation. I can say pretty confidently that there is no “achievement gap” for my own kids, and I suspect the same is true of their classmates. That is a testament to teachers and administrators who put the overall health and well-being of the students and the community first.

And things have been looking up. Despite a blip over the last week or two, new cases have been on a downward trend in AZ. The main indicator I’ve been tracking over the year is a 7-day mean of new infections in Arizona. The below represents just a couple weeks shy of the full year. As you can see, we are roughly where we were at the start of the school year. And there are two pretty distinct waves of infection in Arizona. It would be reasonable to expect future waves as well. The giant question mark is what effect vaccinations might have on this.

Thanks to Governor Ducey’s approach to trusting his gut and his donors over any kind of evidence, public schools (including charters like ours) are required to restart in-person instruction next week. Our school had planned a hybrid return for after spring break in mid-April, and given the trends, that seemed like a reasonable plan. Unfortunately, the governor seems set on unreasonable plans, which has already cost thousands of Arizonans their lives. Not only is there a return to schools, but a simultaneous opening of gyms, restaurants, and bars at full capacity. This will almost certainly prolong the high infection rate.

Our kids won’t be going back next week. We already set criteria for return, based in part on guidelines established by the AZ Department of Health last October (PDF). These include:

  • Seven-day average new infections in the state under 750 and declining.
  • Positivity rate under 7% in the state.
  • Both Jamie and I vaccinated.

When we pulled the kids out of school this time last year, I had the pessimistic view that they would likely be out for the 2020 calendar year, and we would reassess at that point. Obviously, no one was going back to school after winter break this year. I have friends who now are saying they won’t start their kids back to school until Spring of ’22. While I understand the pessimism, after multiple setbacks, these vaccines appear to be effective, and while they won’t knock out the pandemic on their own, and I am deeply concerned we won’t get vaccination rates high enough to damp down stupid behaviors, I suspect we will meet our “family metrics” before the end of April.

I remain concerned about the long-term effects of contracting COVID, particularly for kids. If we knew what those effects were, and how frequently they appeared, we could make a bet based on the odds. It is so much harder to make that bet when you don’t know those odds and when you are gambling with the future of your children. But I know that I am not going to trust Ducey to make that choice for me, and that I am going to do my best to make these decisions based on the best available metrics and data.

In the meantime, I’m going to have to start teaching my kids how to be in public again. They’ll need actual clothes (not just PJs), and will have to learn to sit in chairs. Wish me luck.

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Pandemic Planning Document

Planning for anything right now is folly. I’m not even sure what I am doing today, or tomorrow, let alone this summer. Fall seems endlessly far away, and 2021 too far to contemplate. But I am a planner. Everyone seems to be looking to peers to figure out what to do: How are you even living? Here in Arizona, many of those peers are blythely assuming that the pandemic is done, and it’s time to return to business as usual. Others want to minimize the deaths caused by the epidemic here in the US, and are thinking about what kinds of mitigations are possible and are reasonable to help both themselves and their communities.

The Threat

It’s been a creeping phenomenon. In March, folks said “it’s only 20 people dead in the whole of the US, stop freaking out” These days they say “it’s only 90K dead, stop freaking out.” Most projections see us at 150K dead by August. Many look at our current mortality and note that we are doubling the number of US lives lost during the entirety of the Vietnam conflict. Others note we are still well shy of the number who died in WWII. Others quite correctly remind us that the number of deaths are still nowhere near the number who will die this year of heart disease or cancer. It’s hard to come to grips with the numbers. And frankly, death isn’t the only metric here. Those who are hit hard have a very long road to recovery. I won’t talk about the economic damage, not because I don’t care, but because I suspect that it was a bubble that was bound to burst anyway, and while COVID-19 is clearly the proximate cause, the issues run much deeper. But I also know that the economic downturn is likely to affect far more people than the infection will.

I am older but not old. But I have multiple comorbidities. So, if I contract the infection, my chances of dying are relatively high: If I had to guess, around one in ten. (By comparison, my odds of dying over the next year at my age by all causes float around one in 200.)

That means, from a purely personal perspective, I’m going to err on the side of one of those phrases we hear a lot of: “an abundance of caution.” And unfortunately, that extends to my family, since if I isolate, my sole chance of contracting is via my spouse or children.

It appears that the major threats to contracting the virus are via droplets, and that the main way of getting infected is being in close proximity (i.e. breathing the same air) of an infected person, especially over an extended period of time. The best summary of risks I’ve seen is this write-up by Erin Bromage. If you read just one thing, it should be that.

There remain a lot of question marks that frankly are going to take some time to answer, everything from the degree to which fomite transmission is something to worry about, to the timeline for the development of better therapies, to the eventual possibility of a vaccine. On the other hand, we get new information every day.

What this means is what follows is a very conservative approach. It probably won’t work for most or all, and it will likely be moderated as we learn more and circumstances change. But here is my plan as of late May.

(Also, I should state here that we are very aware of the privileges we have: in terms of space, in terms of being–for now–employed with comfortable incomes. We have done small things to help those who we normally work with to provide some level of continuity in their own income. And we are trying to provide for the community in other ways as well. We realize this is having far more far-reaching effects for most people out there, and so I offer this with that in mind, and not as a recommendation or any indication beyond what it is we are doing.)


Isolate. The answer for summer is easy: continuing to isolate as we have been. That means me and the kids home 24/7. It’s too hot at this point really to even do the “meet neighbors on the lawn” or “walk around the neighborhood.” We’ll get out back into the pool–and are figuring out some things around mosquito abatement to make sure we can use our yard more than we have been–but our limits are our curtilage. To whatever extent possible, we’ll try not to have anyone else in the house. That assumes I can do the currently needed repair on our dryer and a small air conditioner, which may be asking a lot.

Cleaning. We are doing our best to keep the house clean. That’s always a battle, but more now. We wash our hands a lot. We hit touch points with clorox wipes twice a day. And yes, we installed a washlet toilet seat like a lot of people did. We had one before that didn’t work very well, and went with a Toto this time. The kids were used to them from our trip to Japan, and came home wanting one, and the timing was right.

Work. For me, this differs little from what a normal summer would look like: staying home and trying to get work done. The big changes are for my family. My spouse would prefer not working from home, but for at least the early part of the summer she will continue to do so. She may then end up doing shifts at work, where she has a private office. We’ll put a HEPA air filter in there, and see if there are other ways of limiting exposure.

Summer school. We’ve set up “the lab”–a studio space for the kids that is a classroom, workspace, etc. Each have their own computer now, and they have been finishing out the year doing distance education with their class. This transition has been far smoother than we might have expected. At present, they are signed up for several summer schools, learning to shoot movies in Minecraft, an architecture camp offered by Taliesin, and arts and music summer camps. If anything, they may have more summer camps than last summer. We had purchased some used ebook readers (Kobos) for them to use as well, and have been moving books on there for them to read.

Kid socializing. This is the one that has been the trickiest. Early on, the kids set up their own Minecraft server that they spend a lot of time on with friends. The youngest started opening up a Zoom window (rather than using one of the other talk servers) while playing, as it was something they were already using for stuff. Now, they frequently will just leave a Zoom room open while friends drift in and out during the day. I’ve been surprised by how well this seems to work, and it has assuaged a little of my concerns about socializing. Summer will make that a little trickier, and there are concerns over security, but so far so good.

They also have seen extended family via Zoom more in the last few months than in the last few years before that. That’s no stand-in for face-to-face, any more than it is for friends, and we had grandparents and others planning to visit right before we went to stay-at-home. But it is something.

Supplies. My spouse is our runner: once a week she hits the Costco, the supermarket, and the farmers’ market. She wears a mask, removes her clothes and showers when she gets back. We rinse things that need refrigerated, and leave some in the garage to “age” for a bit before using. Likewise, packages from Amazon, etc., sit in our entryway for a bit before opened up. This is almost certainly overkill, and given what we know about threats, we may ease up on this a bit moving forward. We haven’t done grocery delivery, in part because I think our runner needs to get out of the house a bit.

Hair & Makeup. This is obviously not an issue for me: my folicular lack is a bonus here. The kids are also getting cuts by their parental units out back. So far, spouse’s hairdresser (who comes to town from California periodically to cut and color local clients) has been supplying touch-ups for color. We’ve talked about it, and I think she is going to try for a back-yard cut and color sometime later in the summer, depending on heat. Both she and my spouse will mask up. There is obvious risk entailed here, but it’s limited and one of those small things that might just have to happen.

I’ve long wanted to up my skills as a manicurist. Spouse uses dipping powders for her nails, and although it can be slightly tricky to get hold of the supplies right now, we have her color and the other stuff. I’ll need to pick out what I want for myself for practice. I’ve never worn nail polish, and I’d normally just go for a clear nail or french manicure, but since I need to get the dipping powders down, I’m thinking maybe this one.

Medical. Luckily, we’ve been incident-free, but for now we are either doing telemedicine where possible, or delaying regular care. It means one of my kids is slightly behind on a vaccine (because the doctor stupidly wouldn’t do the poke a week before the recommended age when we went in for the last visit). And I regularly get bloodwork done that I’ve put on hold. Would love to be able to do the draws myself, but that doesn’t look like it’s in the cards, and for now, spending time in a room with sick people isn’t worth the risk. And we’ve delayed dental cleanings. But eventually we’ll end up having to see a doctor or dentist, for everyday stuff if not emergent stuff.

Gym and dojo. Because we are in Arizona, both our gym and the kids judo dojo are open again. To me, this is crazy: breathing hard in close quarters with other people is just asking for contagion. But we are clearly in the minority on this one. Our gym does a zoom workout. They were doing it each morning, and now they are down to three times a week. This seems to be working for us for now. It may be that we will put the gym membership on hold now that they have a more regular income (and are not serving us as directly), but we’ll hold off for a bit there. Also looking at adding an online krav maga program for the family.

The kids are working out with us in the mornings, and they have started doing turns on a treadmill as well. And they’ll be in the pool a bit. It’s hard to do outdoor activities in the summer in Phoenix anyway, but we’ll try to find other ways for all of us to get a bit more fit over the summer. I’m probably working out more now than I have over the last several years, and trying to gradually increase this. The more morbid way of thinking about this is prehabilitation: getting my heart and lungs in better shape for recovering if I have to. But more generally, it’s something I’ve needed to do for a while, and a project I should be able to do as well at home as anywhere. Think of it as a prisoner workout. (Heck, maybe I’ll even give myself a tattoo at some point.) My hope is that by the time it’s safe for the kids to get back into a judo dojo, I will be ready to get back too.

Food. Pre-pandemic, we would eat out or carry-out most days. We would eat at home, but it was usually only once or twice a week. Like many, we are doing a lot of cooking and baking at home right now. We haven’t even done carry-out since the pandemic started. We wanted to support local restaurants, but it seemed a risk to have potentially infected people preparing our food. This is one of the things we may revisit over the summer. We have food that we buy at the market that has been prepared by human beings and is not cooked–deli meats, salsa, etc. So the step there to having it prepared for carry-out or delivery is a small one, and we may need to think about whether this is one area where we might make some changes later in the summer or in the fall.

Trying to actually get a garden started, since that will fix everything, but we haven’t had luck with that in the past. In addition to our outside plot, we will again be playing with hydroponics, indoors, where we can control the elements a bit better.

We try to do rotating backlog of food for two weeks. We have a freezer chest, and until recently had a second fridge (a leftover from the previous owners in the garage). Unfortunately the latter works only when it feels like it, which means it’s fine for keeping drinks cold but is unreliable. I have a little dorm fridge I’d gotten for my office but now lives in the garage as well. I’ll try to repair the second fridge, or we may need to look at getting a replacement for the fall.


Especially as we move into August and September, it seems likely that there will be more opening up in general, and more demands. Everything I have seen from people who know about this stuff suggests that there will be a very good chance of a resurgence of the pandemic in the fall, and that it could potentially be much more widespread than it is right now. We may be setting ourselves up, globally, for a really hard hit. (Or we may prepare for a resurgence that never happens, but it seems like epidemiologists are putting bets on one happening.) Surveillance will be important here, and I’ll keep an environmental scan in place, but I will be surprised if we have any kind of infrastructure for early warning. I had hoped that the high temperatures in Phoenix would mean we could watch for outbreaks on the east coast for some forewarning, but it looks like (probably thanks to travel patterns) we aren’t necessarily any earlier or later for things like flu.

Work. I suspect my spouse’s work will have greater expectations of people coming in, so we will need to think about ways of protecting her at work, and among new contexts. There is some tension here in that there needs to be some give-and-take between my desire for safety and her ability to do her work without it impeding her career. Much of the world is going to open up more rapidly than I am ready for, but she will be necessarily drawn into that.

My employer, Arizona State University, insists that the university will be back in classrooms in the fall. My plan is to continue as I have during the summer: teaching online, attending university meetings online, doing everything–online. I suspect other members of faculty will be as cautious as I am, and that there will be accomodations made for some distancing.

And although I am a tenured professor, both my spouse and I are anticipating pay cuts, perhaps significant. I’m looking retrain in areas where I already have some skills to make sure that they are current, in the unlikely case that I’ll have to market myself as a non-professor. And if that doesn’t come to pass, I need more skills anyway. I may step back into consulting a bit as well.

School. This is perhaps the number one topic of discussion among parents right now. No one knows what is going to happen with school. My kids will be staying home, unless something significant changes over the summer. Their current school is a charter, and so they are guided by the requirements of the superintendent of schools. If public schools are open, they have no choice. Moreover, their charter does not allow for distance education. Ideally, some number of the kids in the school will be similarly planning to stay home, and the school can find a way to accommodate that by doing something similar to what they are doing now.

If not, we will likely see a continuation of what we do during the summer: homeschooling. This is something we were already planning on doing six months ago, before we found their current school, which has been awesome for them. So as a backup, we will do a patchwork of online learning and projects that I lead them through: meeting two or three times a day and sending them off to complete projects in-between. We will likely work through this as a give-and-take and find ways to make it work.

If I go this route, I may actually do some group-led project work and teaching. I’ve been thinking about opening up an astronaut-training school for kids: organizing all of our activities around the eventuality that they may want to move to the moon or Mars someday. It may be that I start doing this in the fall, and have it lead to in-person schooling if we get there. I’ve been looking at the requirements for starting a distance charter…

Prepping. The irony for me is that Arizona may not be Utah, but we should have been fairly well set for shelter-in-place. When we were looking for a new house, there were a few that were family compounds or had bomb shelters. No one anticipated that those who are most likely to prep were also most likely to be in desperate need of a manicure. Nonetheless, we’ll need to think about what it would look like if we had to shelter in place and if Phoenix in October is like New York in April–or much worse. That means replenishing our supplies, and shifting our two-week window to four or six weeks. And yes, that means we will build a small stockpile of TP and bleach and flour–not to hoard, but to prepare–purchasing in small amounts as they become available more widely, in preparation for a potential set of runs in mid-fall.

We will continue doing Rona DiY–making our house more liveable. I may try to trench out a fiber line so we can get more bandwidth. We’ll make sure we have better ways of keeping things clean, tidy, and safe. We’ll still decorate for Halloween, even if it looks like the Pirate Party is off. And one of our projects is making us home-rigged PAPRs, so we can appear in public as paranoid as we are in private.


It is difficult to imagine the world in 2021. I am co-chairing a minitrack on digital methods at HICSS in Hawaii January, and we have just heard that they plan to go forward. I am disappointed to be missing AoIR, which was scheduled for Dublin in October, and as long as we are not mid-pandemic, I fully plan to go to Hawaii. (The Venetian is currently booking free rooms for educators, so we may try a car trip in December if things are looking ronaless.) I’m not as confident as some are that we will be out of the woods in the fall. But I am hopeful that we will be in new territory at some point in 2021, even if not at the beginning.

Nonetheless, I hope all the summer and fall prep will move us toward being prepped for this moving forward. We are also relaunching our masters program in Critical Data Studies (the MA in Social Tech/CDS), which will be offered with “attendance flexibility” not just because of COVID-19, but because there will be another pandemic, and there will be new reasons for learning at a distance beyond that, which may or may not fit with existing “distance” approaches. I don’t think I’ve ever been a “leader” in the online learning space, but I think “innovator” or “experimenter” is fair. And so I will spend some time thinking about what hybrid and flexible spaces mean here: playing more with online and telepresence tech to see what mixes and recipes work.

I also don’t think of myself as a pessimist, but I generally like a challenge. This is that. At some point, I may just have to toss in with everyone else, and my mitigations will abate, and I’ll live with the likelihood that a virus is a more likely way for me to die than heart disease or cancer. And I’ll be OK with that in 2021. Just not yet…

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