Friday, June 6, 2008

Unfinished business

I've spent the last week rearranging numbers in Microsoft Excel.

This isn't the sort of thing that one tells people in order to sell the glamorous life of a geologist*. But it feels useful and productive. See, I should have done this seven years ago. Yes, that's right... I'm working on a draft of a paper that has languished for seven years.

Let me back up. My first teaching job involved many changes: I moved to a different coast, I went from a research fellowship to teaching five courses plus labs per year, and I started doing research in a new mountain belt (and a new metamorphic grade and tectonic setting). I figured that broad experience was good for someone who wanted to teach (and whose job involved a grand total of nine different new course preps in the first four years). I knew it would be difficult to find new research projects in a new field area, but I didn't realize how difficult it would be to earn the respect of the people already working in the area. I worked anyway, cobbling together money from small grants to pay undergrads for their field time, and collecting data with instruments at my institution. After seven years, I had started publishing in the new area, and I was trying to figure out how to get NSF funding for research with undergrads. I had tried three different programs as a PI without success, so I tried something new: I networked. There's a program called Research Opportunity Awards that allows professors at teaching-intensive colleges to get money tied to an existing, funded NSF grant. I found people from whom I wanted to learn, I contacted them, and I wrote a proposal.

And then I didn't get tenure.

Even though I landed another academic job within three months, I was faced with moving away from my field area and from my instruments, to a new place, with new preps and different expectations. I probably should have apologized to NSF and the PIs (and I did talk to the PIs about backing out), but the PIs thought I could pull it off. So I spent the summer between jobs doing lab work and modeling work at two different institutions.

And then I dropped the ball. Six courses a year, plus field camp, left me exhausted and ready to stare at some walls. Plus I wasn't teaching courses that related to my old research, and students wouldn't work with me in a field area on the other side of the country. There wasn't even that much pressure to publish for tenure here - publishing on pedagogy or as a third author on my old PhD work, and writing equipment grants with other members of my department, was fine for this job. And then I had a baby, and I had even more responsibilities here, and nothing forcing me to finish the old work.

And, to be honest, I couldn't face the Vermont research. It depressed me to even open the draft of the paper, or to look at the thin sections or the spread sheets. Research isn't just a matter of working hard - it involves inspiration, and although anger may be a useful emotion for some purposes, it doesn't lead to great research.

But I've been here for eight years now. I've got tenure. I know my courses. I've got local research projects with senior thesis students, and I've been developing local research projects for intro students, as well. And my son is five, and doesn't need me as constantly as he did as an infant and a toddler. And I got a tiny internal grant to get a little more microprobe data. And now... it's time to put it together, to finish writing the paper that's been sitting on my hard drive for seven years or more.

I've searched georef to see what's been done. The only things published in the past eight years were work that was in progress in 2000. (In fact, one is co-authored by one of my old academic advisees. Yay for her!) Perhaps it's a sign that my work was never cutting edge - but then it never aspired to be. Not all research needs to be published in Science or Nature - sometimes it is worthwhile to tell the world what one knows about an obscure, overgrown corner of the world.

And sometimes it is simply worthwhile to take care of unfinished business.

*I realize that it is unlikely that anyone would mistake me for "one of the coolest, sexiest men alive." However, I might be fun to have breakfast with, if you've got good enough coffee.


Silver Fox said...

It's neat that you're getting the chance to do that - good that you finally have the time and circumstances to follow up. Good luck with putting the pieces together (like the Excel data).

kboughan said...

A 3-3 teaching load isn't that bad. (Unless you have huge sections.)

Kim said...

Plus three labs. Twelve credit hours; for a humanist, it would be four lecture courses per semester. In the sciences, it comes out to 18 contact hours a week.

kboughan said...

Ok. 4-4 or equivalent is bad by any measure. Been there.

Jennie said...

I love that you say, "Research isn't just a matter of working hard - it involves inspiration." This is so true, sometimes no matter how hard you work the ideas just don't come to you.
Also I forgot about that clip from American Dad, pretty funny.