Category Archives: life

What have I said yes to?

As scholar-teachers, all professors at R1 universities are expected to devote time towards research, teaching, and service.  My expected ratio of 60-30-10 for my “40” hour workweek was described to me when I was hired.  It doesn’t really work out that way very well unless you are an expert at time management and saying no.  Most professors work way more than 40 hours a week to get everything accomplished.  I read recently it was more like 60-80 hours per week, including weekends (thank goodness I don’t work in Wisconsin).  Plus, saying no, when you stand in the shadow of the tenure monster, is difficult.  If I say no to this person or this project or this committee now, will it come back to haunt me later?  This is the question that keeps many an assistant professor up at night tossing and turning.  Read the blogs.

I didn’t do a good job saying no my first three years as an assistant professor.  Let’s just say that in Fall 2013, just before my mom died, I did a back of the envelope calculation and figured out that between classes, research, and advising I was interacting with roughly 220+ students.   Go ahead and laugh if you’re running a calculus program or managing introductory biology, chemistry or physics lab courses.  Get it over with.  It’s all relative.  In a small department like mine, you sit on multiple committees.  And with my interests in environmental change and sustainability, I was identified pretty early on and asked to participate in a couple of larger university initiatives focused on these topics.  Lastly, I was also trying to establish an international and interdisciplinary research program.  So lots of stuff to do, people to manage, projects to get up and running.

Now I am not complaining.  I love challenges, and took all of this head on.  However, as I head into my third year as an assistant professor I am seeing the need to slow down and change things up if I want to survive long-term and have some measure of success.  And as awful as it sounds, the deaths of both my parents last year put a lot of things about life and living into perspective for me.  A final lesson from parent to child.  So no is my new, old favorite – my mom told me once that no was the second word I learned to say.  My brother had to learn to say no last year at work when he was taking care of my dad.  He told me the other day he is still reaping the benefits and getting what he needs to get done.

Saying no to things though, I’m finding out means saying yes to others.  Options, in some cases, that I didn’t even know existed.  Now I have time to finish that manuscript that’s been languishing in my files, learn a new data analysis program that I’ve been wanting to test with an old dataset, and really network with other researchers in order to develop new projects.  It’s a bit bewildering.  Just what have I said yes to?

no yes

The Challenge of Being Science

One of my husband’s favorite reminders of his culture versus mine is that the Spanish work to live, while Americans live to work.  I cannot really argue the point with him.  It’s true.  We Americans are a culture of doers.  And in such a culture, that harmless Monday morning question between colleagues – “So, what did you do this weekend?” – takes on a slightly more competitive and sinister meaning.  As one old proverb states, idle hands are the Devil’s playthings.

loiter

But what about loafing?  Daydreaming?  Being lazy as my dad used to chide me?  It seems that recent studies are showing that downtime from doing boosts creativity.  And creativity is absolutely necessary for good science.  A group of researchers at Leiden University found that meditation helped people come up with creative solutions to experimental problems, even when people didn’t really have much experience meditating.  In the experiment, people meditated for just 25 minutes – practicing either open monitoring meditation, letting their minds wander and being receptive to thoughts and sensations in the moment, or focused attention meditation, where individuals concentrated on a particular thought or object.  Open monitoring meditation assisted with divergent thinking, or coming up with multiple solutions to a given problem; focused attention meditation had no effect.   Chilling out in the name of creativity backed by science.  Breathe in.. 2..3..4.. Breathe out.. 2.. 3.. 4..

Being bored has its creative upside too.  I could have told you that by age 10.  I spent a lot of boring snowy no-school days making artwork or writing stories after a couple hours sledding or skating.  Scientists at Penn State looking into why boredom is good for creativity found that people get creative because they’re bored.  In the study, people watched video clips that influenced them to feel relaxed, bored, elated, or distressed.  Then the researchers gave people three words and asked them to come up with a fourth that linked the first three words together.  The bored study participants did the best at this convergent thinking task to find a single, correct solution to a problem.

So why the focus on being?  It is a topic that came up in recent conversations with a friend of mine.  We were talking about how the mad rush to produce as a non-tenured assistant professor leaves me feeling empty and ultimately unmotivated.  However, over the holiday break I didn’t work.  Well, okay I did about 4 hours worth of work over a 2 week period in reviewing graduate applications for our department.  But back to the no-work.  I hung out with my husband.  I watched Spanish TV without subtitles – they have some very interesting talk shows that skewer politicians and make fun of dating.  Pequeño Nicolás!  I drank good wine and ate amazing bread and cheese.  I connected with real people in a non-work context – family members and new friends.  I enjoyed being.  For the first few days, I was chomping at the bit to do stuff.  Anything.  By the end, I was extremely reluctant to come back to the United States and jump back into work.  I was relaxed, maybe a little bored, and my creativity battery felt recharged.

This spring term, I have been given an opportunity.  A semester without classroom teaching.  In the past I’ve funneled my creativity into student learning but now I need to focus it into my research program – research, grant writing, and article publishing.  So now, as my friend reminded me, the challenge is to continue this relaxed feeling while forging ahead productively.

References:

Mid-Semester Slump

by Donald Warner

I’ve officially reached the point of semester that my life is being held on by a single string ready to collapse the balance I have been trying to make of school, work, sleep, food, extracurricular activities, and the occasional “fun” activity (I know, what a concept!) With the looming smell of stuffing and sweet potatoes in the near future, and lowering temperatures that are perfect for just sleeping all day, I thought I’d post some tips to help fellow researchers, as well as students on how to make it through the November drag.

1 . Schedule, schedule, schedule

What?!? Plan ahead?!? Don’t procrastinate?!? What is this?? The concept of actually sitting down and planning out when to balance all of your responsibilities has always seem foreign to me. In fact, the concepts of procrastination and improvisation should really be tattooed on my back in fancy Shakespearean lettering because they are such engrained concepts in my mind. However, as my improvisation turns into “hell, I’ll just lay in bed” I’ve realize that this already flawed strategy is definitely not going end well. Something as simple as just planning out homework, sleep, meals, and even fun can help tame the overwhelming feelings of distraught and doom that are likely arising at this time. If you are one of those people who already do this, and have been doing this for years: teach me your tricks, slash give me a bit of whatever elixir of motivation you’re drinking. If not, this false sense of control on your life will sure to help you manage to not crash and burn as you daydream of pie baking in the oven.

2. Think of the big picture

As much as I aspire to marry rich and simply live lavishly on Malta, with a baby hippo and a fancy cocktails, it’s helpful to stay realistic. The work we are all doing now is going to help our future, so that if the million dollars that Nigerian prince entrusted you with does not actually follow through, you have some experience and good grades under your belt. This is especially important with research. With our research, there are real world benefits, people will benefit from the work we’re doing now. This humbling thought can often jump start me to be productive and get moving.

baby hippo3. Stop making excuses

But my stomach hurts! Sirius Black is still dead! It’s too cold to function! I am famous for finding any sort of reason to halt all work, crawl into bed, and cuddle with my stuffed hippo until I lull into sleep. Excuses, as well as procrastination and improvisation, also may as well be tattooed on my skin in fancy letters. If you too are an excuse maker, don’t worry you are not alone. Taming the voices in your head that tell you to stop is a skill that is hard to master, but it is imperative that you learn as soon as possible. So much of life is mental, and if you can power through the head colds, the sadness, and the cold weather that is slowly freezing your innards, you will feel so much better about yourself, and life. Take the extra time to come into the lab and work, or make the trek to the library to do homework, and try to stop finding excuses!

4. It is okay, and imperative, to relax.

Relax! Please! Find some time! And this is coming from someone who’s anxiety resume is stronger than their academic one. If you get behind on your scheduling, or miss a homework assignment; it’s okay. The world is still spinning; the Simpsons are still on air; and the apocalypse has not yet begun. It’s healthy to be a bit stressed and to put some pressure on yourself to get work done, but within reason. Life is hard, my friend, and won’t get any easier any time soon. You’re allowed to sneak a quick TV episode or a power nap without having to feel guilty.

Owen (hippo) and Mzee (tortoise, "Grandfather" in KiSwahili). When Owen lost his family in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the Kenyan villagers who found him took him to a park where he was adopted by Mzee.

Owen (hippo) and Mzee (tortoise, “Grandfather” in KiSwahili). When Owen lost his family in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami the Kenyan villagers who found him took him to Haller Park Animal Sanctuary near Mombasa, where he was adopted by 130 year old Mzee.

5. We are social creatures! Never forget

Social interaction?! My super introverted self’s stomach is already churning just thinking about it. But no really, people can be okay. Find some time to study with friends, schedule some research with a buddy, or even go get coffee (or tea) with someone you think is cute. It can be easy to feel super alone in this world, especially when you get caught up in your work. Remember that everyone is struggling, and that having someone to talk to, even if it is just every now and then, can make life a little more enjoyable.

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In the thick of the mid-term, when we are all buried beneath an overwhelming amount of things (just things mind you!!) that must be done yesterday – heh! – Donald’s wise words gets to the heart of who we are above and beyond being mad, white-coated scientists slaving away over hot computers in the lab.  We’re people first.  People who have problems and hang ups and sadness and happiness.    To be human beings, not merely human doings, we do have to think of the bigger picture, relax (and stop making excuses not to do so), interact with our fellow Earthlings – human and otherwise, and schedule in our priorities.   *raises a fancy cocktail and gives a baby hippo a hug*  Here’s to all of us who’ve made it through the midterm, and all the best as the steam locomotive accelerates to the end.  ~JS

Training to Respond

Our work in the KRAC Lab focuses on how people, households, and communities use their environmental knowledge to respond and adapt to environmental change.  We work with rural communities primarily in southern Mozambique.  However, Ronga communities are not the only communities facing environmental change, potential natural disaster, and day-to-day emergencies.

Learn to Prepare

Back home, here in the United States, here in Maryland, we face potential threats and deal with emergencies big and small on a daily basis.  Heck, getting into the car to go anywhere in the DMV region is like a death wish with the way most people drive.

START Students Pioneer UMD CERT Program

Rebecca Alberda, a masters student in the KRAC Lab, has been working with START over the past 6 months on the social science side of Maryland and U.S. emergency issues, potential disasters, and terrorist threats.  Recently, she participated in an exercise to complete her Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) certification.  CERT is a FEMA program that trains local citizens to respond and assist in emergency situations.  Prince George’s County has a CERT presence and soon so will the University of Maryland, College Park.    It’s all part of UMD’s emergency preparedness plan.

Coding has changed my life…

by Catherine Soriano Luna

Coding itself is not a hard task at all. That is, if the sentence under scrutiny falls neatly into a category, which is almost never the case. I have had a hard time determining whether or not a certain remark should be coded. I have spent, what has felt like hours, staring at the screen and deciding whether to code something this or that. The process can be frustrating, but it can also be rewarding. At the end, once the coding has been finished, I begin to see patterns and I catch a glimpse of the lives behind the codes. I remind myself these words belong to a group of people far from here, who are experiencing life in a different way than I am. Can I imagine myself going through their day-to-day lives? I cannot, but I beginning to understand where they come from and to appreciate their lifestyle. It is not the type of insight I experience in the classroom where we spend most of our time talking about theory (which is not my strongest suit). If classes dealt more with how things are (and with real, living people), then I’d be much more engaged. As it is, I have only a screen to turn to for a deeper understanding of human life.
As much as I would like to spend my time just reading the interviews, I have to deal with the technical side of things. The program we are using (MAXQDA) has done a good job of providing us the tools for coding, however, I wish I could organize things just a bit more than is currently allowed. I spent an hour ‘playing’ with the program and pressing random buttons in the hope that I would get the hang of it. Needless to say, an hour passed and I was no more informed than when I had started (though to be fair, I did learn how to alphabetize codes and use memos…really useful stuff). Spending more time on video tutorials will be necessary in the foreseeable future. I just hope it’ll be a lot easier to navigate the website than the program itself. If there is one great pleasure I partake in, it is in choosing the colors for the codes. I am easily amused. “Should I choose light blue or sky blue?” Very important decisions to be made for sure. And as the margins fill with color, the patterns begin to rise. And that has made all the difference.
real life safari

Responding to a changing fieldwork situation

A good field researcher is relatively flexible and plans for the inevitable change of plans.  You still try to accomplish what you planned for – particularly when funding is attached.  However, ethnographic fieldwork is not bench laboratory work.  There is no real control, no do-overs, and your study subjects talk back.  This past summer I went to the field expecting to explore indicators of climate change, even though I wrote my research questions to be open to the possibility of discovering other sorts of environmental change indicators.  And while I did get to ask a few questions about responses to climate change, most local residents wanted to talk about elephants.  So I did.  It was a risk to go off “script”, but given the stakes for my friends and others living in this place, a risk I think worth taking.

I think this seemingly abrupt change of plans initially made Jordan, my graduate assistant, uncomfortable.  However, as I said there was some flexibility built into my research plan.  When anthropologists go to the field to work with people, that means we work with them where they are.  Pushing and pursuing questions that have no relevance makes immediate research difficult, and future research darn near impossible.  This is something they don’t tell you in school (and why pilot studies are so important).   The ongoing human-elephant conflict at my field site in Mozambique has entered a new phase, and as such, definitely constitutes a major environmental change to the social-ecological system.  Jordan finally got it when during one of her malaria interviews a woman told her that folks in the community wouldn’t even be speaking to her if I weren’t present.  They knew me and I was asking relevant questions (despite my anxiety that this wasn’t going to pan out).   Right now, their focus and attention was on the elephants raiding their agricultural fields not malaria.  The health clinic in Salamanga provides free treatment for malaria so this wasn’t really an issue.  Not having food to eat was an issue.

Feet taken from problem elephant. The animal harassed local residents outside a reserve area and would not return to live within protected area boundaries despite multiple attempts to chase him back inside. Image by L.J. Shaffer 2008.

This fall seven anthropology students are working with Jordan and I to code our summer interviews, field notes, and digital images.  I can’t take them to the field with me and given the elephant issue that might not be wise anyway.  However, they can learn how to use basic ethnographic tools and we are getting a serious lot of data organized in preparation for full analysis.  They will also help with some of the analysis, but the primary goal is to provide some hands on training on what it is that anthropologists actually do.   One of the first products we will produce is a report on the state of the human-elephant conflict in Matutuine District based on the data we collected this summer.  This will be sent to various Mozambican government agencies and the local communities.  Report writing is an important part of applied anthropology.  I would also like to put together a short piece for Mozambican newspapers, and maybe something on living with charismatic megafauna for American newspapers.  Elephants are one of the coolest animals ever, but they are also incredibly destructive if they are running loose in your maize and cassava fields.

We had a lot of visual data this summer – mine and some from local photographers who are participating in a PhotoVoice project documenting local changes to the environment.  Yesterday I used some of this data to put together a short video for my ANTH 222 course (Introduction to Ecological and Evolutionary Anthropology).  We are currently talking about biotic and abiotic factors and processes that influence evolution and shape landscapes.   Given that every term students ask me to talk more about my research, I thought the human-elephant conflict a good example.  Competition for food, water, & space resources, population growth, keystone species, fire, shifting climatic factors, national & international laws, cooperation, etc.  I’ve posted it below.  Please note there are some graphic depictions of animal butchering if you are squeamish.

Initial Fall 2014 Updates

Well it was a thankfully brief and interesting summer.  While most of my colleagues wish that their summers were longer (and don’t get me wrong, most years I do), I was so happy for the Summer of 2014 to end.  It came after an equally interminable year of riding a mental, emotional, and physical roller coaster.  I hit 5 life milestones in one year – something I would never recommend – getting married, buying my first home, buying my first car (without my dad checking it out first to make sure it is safe enough), and the deaths of both my parents (they died exactly 6 months to the day apart).  The first three are exciting and certainly the first is a very happy occasion, but all this was marred by the loss of two people I have loved, and who have loved and believed in me through thick and thin, my entire life.  But I study resilience.  I know what it takes to walk on.  And despite the cliche, as my mom would say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  So I’ve climbed back up on my horse and I’m charging back in to the battle.

Belief, Optimism, Connection, Humor (Leadership Elements blog)

Belief, Optimism, Connection, Humor (Leadership Elements blog, 9/16/13)

As I take a look around, I see that my students are doing and have done well.  Phew!  That is a huge relief.  Katie Chen is working full time and being paid at University Research Co., LLC where she took a chance on an unpaid summer internship last spring.  Raquel Fleskes is thriving as a brand new doctoral student of molecular anthropology at Penn.  Maria Sharova is back after a successful summer being paid to analyze environmental protest text at SESYNC.  Jordan Tompkins survived not only her crazy supervisor (me), but also killer elephants, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and hoopty transportation in Mozambique’s bush.  Rebecca Alberda learned a lot about a new (to her) type of disaster – terrorism – and working for the US government as an anthropologist in her masters internship at START.  Her blog post about the experience highlights the many connections in natural and man-made disaster risk, as well as the large group of individuals working to improve communication during catastrophes to protect more lives.  Alyssa Nutter received rave reviews for her work with the Peace Program field school in the Gambia, and her supervisor assures me that she remained safe from potential Ebola infection.  I have not heard from Amanda Hathaway though.  I hope that she is working at a job she really enjoys and enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of Colorado.  All in all a good group of women going places.  Seeing their success boosts my optimism that things are looking up!

In the meantime, I have seven new students, and one doctoral student, working in the Shaffer lab.  Each of them brings a new perspective and fresh ideas.  This term the undergraduates will be learning how to do text analysis.  Jordan is taking the lead on their training (learning and practicing her people management skills), and I am learning how to step back and delegate.