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More on the Secret Lives of Professors

May 31, 2010 2 comments

Matt Welsh at Harvard wrote a nice blog post “The Secret Lives of Professors” that has been reposted by lots of folks. I think he makes some great points. I thought I’d throw in my 2 cents.

Fund Raising
Like Matt, it surprised me how much time I end up spending raising money. Time and angst. Early on in my career, a senior faculty member told me that writing these things is good for you–writing a proposal really helps you figure out what you’re doing. I laughed at the time (This is good for me? Uh, yeah–whatever). But the more I’ve done it, the more I’ve realized how right she was. When you’ve written a really solid proposal, the rest is easy. In some ways, some of the hardest students to advise are the ones with NSF fellowships. (OK, you can do anything. Now what?)

That’s the good news. The bad news: grant rates have gotten unreasonably competitive. And in the end, panels are often forced to pick between apples and oranges. Ie, here are four equally sound proposals on quite different topics, but we can only fund one. This contributes to the angst part of the equation.

Heuristics
Another thing that continues to surprise me is how much you need to build up your own set of heuristics about what is important–what you prioritize, and why. And to try to stay true to the rules you’ve laid out–to make active decisions about how to manage your time, and not just drift in the direction of the thing marked URGENT in your inbox. As a graduate student, if a nice person asked me to do something that seemed worthwhile and it was possible for me to do it, I said yes. This seems like a reasonable approach, doesn’t it? As a faculty member, it’s woefully inadequate. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Yup, that conference is actually worthwhile, and I am really not busy those days. But if I squeeze another trip in between trip one and trip two, I’ll be coming and going continually. Many of my colleagues are always coming and going, and seem to like it that way. Me, I can’t get real work done that way. I can’t live that way.

In the undergraduate class “Computers, Society, and Professionalism” I teach, we spend a class on virtue ethics. I don’t think it’s the deepest of philosophies–but it might be the most useful. What kind of person (professor) do you want to be? I ask myself that all the time. There are more possible answers than you might think–there are lots of different kinds of things to strive for, to feel satisfied about. And it surprises me the extent to which the answer to that question is up to me, and the ways that my moment-by-moment decisions shape the bigger picture. I come home too often feeling frustrated that I didn’t get my paper written, when instead I should be thinking “I really helped that poor lost student today.” I try to remind myself of that, but it’s not always easy.

One Big Opportunity
I was an undergrad at Harvard, and I loved it there. Being a Harvard student is just one big opportunity–but it is what you make of it, and there’s not a whole lot of support. It’s easy to get lost. Different schools are good for learning different kinds of things, and for different kinds of people. Harvard has got a lot of prestige, and prestige opens doors. Some of the prestige is well deserved, some is nonsense. Some folks thrive there, and for others it’s absolutely the wrong place. And everything I just said I think sums up being a professor. I love it, and for someone with the right personality it’s just one big fantastic opportunity. Opportunity to do work you care about, and to influence the world for the better both through your teaching and the knowledge discovered and shared in your papers.

Categories: teaching

Privacy Goes Mainstream

May 15, 2010 2 comments

Twenty years ago, I worried a lot about privacy. As a graduate student at the MIT Media lab, I started a mailing list on privacy. I volunteered to be the graduate student representative on the faculty committee on privacy. When MIT implemented a new ID card system that recorded your comings and goings, I spent countless hours talking to everyone–the director of housing, the chief of police, the director of parking…. I asked them, what data are you recording? How long are you going to save it? What kinds of requests for that data are you going to honor?

It was a lonely hobby. Lonely and a bit depressing. Because no one else seemed to care. After a while, it was hard not to shrug my shoulders and say, “maybe I’m blowing this out of proportion.”

It is indeed possible to blow privacy out of proportion. I willingly use a frequent shopper card at the supermarket. They get marketing data that is valuable to them, and I get a discount. I realize that this can be used to manipulate me. For example, if you usually buy brand X, they will give you a fantastic coupon for brand Y that they happen to make a better profit margin on. They’re trying to change your habits. So I try to remember not to change my regular habits without thinking about why. I’m sure I’m manipulated in other ways I’m not as savvy about. But in the end, it’s a trade-off, and I don’t mind.

A very smart man, MIT Professor Jerry Saltzer, once told me: “Privacy is a database correlation problem.” I think that sums up the core issue quite elegantly. It’s not about what the supermarket can do with my data, but what you can do with my data from the supermarket, the garden center, the pharmacy, and the bank all cross-referenced together. Which is why I found it kinda creepy today when I re-loaned my small contribution on kiva.org, and a window popped up asking if I wanted to publicize this on Facebook–including my Facebook photo. It feels intrusive. I clicked “no thanks” and in this case there’s no harm done. But you can start to imagine scenarios where it gets more intrusive.

My Twitter and Facebook accounts are filled with complaints about Facebook privacy today. So filled that people are starting to compalin about the complaints. I laughed at this tweet today (by @johnmoe, RT by @zorbadgreek): “Sorry to hear your Facebook privacy may not be absolute. That’s a real tragedy. Love, The Marine Life of the Gulf of Mexico.” He’s right that Facebook privacy is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, and the gulf oil spill may well emerge as one of the great tragedies of American history. But in another sense, it’s a very big deal: it’s an awakening. A public awakening. People are recognizing privacy as a real issue of concern. Worrying about your privacy is suddenly mainstream. And this I think will also ultimately be seen as a notable moment in history–a turning point.

Categories: privacy
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