Challengers

Last weekend, I went cross-country skiing for the first time ever.  My husband, who XC skiied a handful of times as a kid, offered to teach me the basics, so we went out together on some trails near our house.

I should mention that my husband is a talented athlete.  He’s one of those annoying people who pick up new sports and skills with ease.  He’s also somewhat fearless:  his philosophy is that you learn, and get better, by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone—sink or swim, to use another sports analogy.

Left to my own devices, I probably would have taken a few spins around the green (easy) trail, until I felt confident in my technique, and then MAYBE ventured out onto the blue (moderate) trail.  Instead, I found myself following my husband from the green trail quickly to the blue trail (seriously, I think we were on the green trail for all of 5 minutes), and onto, I discovered after the fact, the black diamond trail.  (Him:  But you were doing so well!  I knew you could handle it.)  And I actually was very proud of myself for how well I did, tackling the hills with, well ok not ease, but confidence that I could get up and get myself back down again.  Letting myself enjoy the moment and the challenge.  And now that I know that I can do a black diamond, I feel more confident about going out onto the trails again—it’s a great motivator for me.

We all need people who are willing to push us out of our comfort zone, “challengers” as I like to call them.  Sometimes being uncomfortable is the only way we’ll learn a particular lesson, or get better at some particular thing, or gain the confidence we need to tackle a bigger task.

It occurred to me, on reflecting about my ski adventure, that I currently lack a challenger in my professional life.  Sure, I do a passable enough job challenging myself, whether that’s applying for a competitive grant or sending out my work before I think it’s completely ready or trying risky things in the classroom.  Feeling uncomfortable is a great motivator for me.  But I think I need someone who will push me further.  Someone who will push me not just to submit my work, but to submit it to the highest tier conferences (which I’ve mostly avoided out of…fear?).  Someone who can get me to think more pie-in-the-sky about my research and take more risks with that.  I’m in a bit of a holding pattern, especially in my research, right now, and I need a good swift kick in the pants to get me not just out of my comfort zone, but way out of my comfort zone, to move out of this holding pattern and either fail spectacularly or make some real progress.  (actually that doesn’t have to be either-or, since some of my spectacular failures have led to great progress as well.)

So in the coming weeks, I’m going to try to identify a challenger, most likely within my existing mentoring network, but possibly a new not-yet-a-mentor contact—maybe I need some really fresh thinking as well as a kick in the pants!

Do you have a challenger?  If so, what role does s/he play in your professional life?

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An open letter to yesterday’s Convo speaker

Dear Convo speaker,

It’s not often that Convo speakers with a CS tie visit our fair campus, so it was with great anticipation that I attended your talk yesterday.  I wasn’t sure what type of talk you would give, but was pleased by your decision to go all visionary on us.  I love visionary talks.  I enjoyed your take on what the future may hold and your insights into the state of the field today.  I appreciated that your talk was accessible and engaging, at your attempts to work humor and levity into the talk, and, according to my students, your most excellent discussion at the lunch afterwards.  Your talk has given me lots to talk about with my students in my two intro-level classes in the coming weeks, and for that I thank you.

And then, It happened.  The Gratuitous Porn Reference (GPR).

Now, as a woman in tech, I’m certainly no stranger to the occasional GPR in the keynote or seminar talk.  It happens more often than I’d care to admit, unfortunately, but more on that later.  As a feminist and a compassionate human being, I abhor porn.  I abhor its extreme objectification of women and pretty much everything about it.  When I hear a porn reference in a talk, I feel extraordinarily uncomfortable, wishing a gaping hole in the earth would swallow me whole and take me away from the moment.  So you can imagine how I felt when you threw that GPR into the talk.  It distracted me from your message for most of the rest of the talk, which is unfortunate because I’m sure you said some more really insightful and interesting things.

What you did was sloppy preparation.  The GPR was completely gratuitous, and very obviously thrown in to generate laughs.  If you were hoping to use humor to illustrate your point, there were many other examples you could have used which would have fit your point much, much better.  I’m guessing you saw that you were speaking at a college campus, figured since you are big in the gaming field that your audience would be mostly male, and decided the joke would work.  But the audience was pretty mixed.  Regardless, I think it’s a bit insulting to your audience to make these assumptions about how your audience feels about such a lightning-rod topic, and such a big risk as well—the risk of alienating a good portion of your audience, not just women but men who strongly dislike porn and what it stands for as well.

And let’s talk about alienating your audience.  As I mentioned previously, this is not the first time I’ve heard a GPR in a tech talk, and as references go it was pretty tame.  But.  The world of technology already feels like a giant Boys’ Club, and those of us who don’t fit in to that Boys’ Club because of our race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or personality already feel plenty uncomfortable.  Trust me, as a woman in technology I’m reminded almost daily, in many tiny and mostly subtle ways, that I don’t really belong.  Throwing in a reference to something that so strongly objectifies women feeds into that Boys’ Club culture.  It tells the women in your audience that you see them first and foremost as objects of desire, not competent and welcome contributors to the field.  Even if this was not your intention, this is the message you send, particularly when you are a big name in the field.

Finally, your institution is one that is admired and lauded for Getting It when it comes to broadening and welcoming participation in tech-related fields—a real leader in this area.  When you speak, like it or not, you represent your institution as well as yourself.  And people, in the absence of other information, will assume that your views somehow represent the values and views of the school.  So you did your institution a grave disservice as well.

I hope you will keep this in mind the next time you give a talk like this.  Because as much as I’d like to say I’ll remember all of the fine points you made in your Convo talk, in reality I’ll probably just remember you as Just Another Speaker Who Doesn’t Get It.

Cordially,

Amy

Professional superstitions

While 2010 was a good year in a number of ways, I have to admit that I felt a bit of glee when the year switched over to 2011.  You see, I have a little secret.  While I am in many ways a sane and rational person, I also am a bit superstitious:

I believe that odd-numbered years are lucky years for me.

I admit that such a belief is bizarre.  But, strangely enough, it’s a pattern that’s borne out multiple times in my life.  I was hired at this job in an odd-numbered year.  The vast majority of my publications occurred in odd-numbered years.  I earned my MS and PhD in odd-numbered years.  Heck, I even won “most improved swimmer” in an odd-numbered year, way back in the day.  🙂  And even though there was nothing comforting about going up for tenure, I will admit that going up for tenure in an odd-numbered year made me feel a tiny bit better about the process.

Sometimes I wonder if the superstition has become somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Am I more confident in myself in odd-numbered years, leading to my increased success?  Do I tend to take more risks that pay off in odd-numbered years?  Or is it just a weird cycle, in which the things I do in even-numbered years lay the groundwork for the odd-numbered year successes?  After all, it’s not like I, say, don’t submit any papers during even-numbered years.  But the papers I do submit are more likely to be rejected (like the spectacular rejection I received just before the end of the year—ouch) in even-numbered years.   So perhaps there’s a bit of each of those factors at play here.

When we think about professionals harboring superstitions, we naturally think of athletes, but my own experience has me wondering if other types of professionals—academics, people in other careers—harbor superstitions as well.  Do you have any superstitions related to your work life?  What are they?  Do you do anything differently career-wise as a result of your superstitions?

On a totally unrelated note, I’ve decided to participate in WordPress’ PostAWeek 2011 challenge, so watch for weekly posts throughout the year.  If there’s some topic you’d like me to blog about, feel free to suggest it in the comments.  Thanks!