I was having dinner last night with my nephew, who is a computer science guy, and he told me about something from last spring that must be shared: the all-time best announcement of gaining tenure by anyone in all the universes.
The perpetrator is Harvard’s James Micklin, whose work centers on distributed systems, how to make them better, and how to make them more secure. Also, my nephew told me, he was one of the most effective and inspiring teachers he had in college.
More at his website, including links to papers that are beyond my ken, but not that of many here. At his site you’ll find the usual tabs (research, publications and so on) — and one less common on faculty pages: wisdom. Top of the list of wisdom nuggets? This dispatch from the halcyon shores of tenure, which begins as follows:
BREAKING NEWS: I’ve received tenure at Harvard! I want to thank all of the enemies that I had to destroy to achieve this great honor. Roger Davis at Princeton’s department of nutrition—you questioned my research on the efficacy of an all-Pop-Tart diet, but I am living proof that the diet works. Yes, I have nose bleeds every day and my pancreas has the dysfunction of a failing Soviet client state, but I believe that having constant double vision makes me twice as optimistic about life…
It goes on in that vein for a bit, and then concludes:
Martha and the boys are doing well; we built a cabin by the hills. We pluck the blueberries beneath the torch of moonlight and watch the stars dance in the ocean of the sky. When little John sits on my knee, I see my father in him, and my father’s father too. He points to the field that lies just before the curve of the river, and he says, “Papa, why have you attached a plow to Bruce Jøhansen and forced him to plant ragweed despite his crippling seasonal allergies?” One day, son, you’ll understand—when you have tenure.
Tenure is a process that casts all who enter it into the realm of the absurd. I can’t remember the last time I encountered someone who embraced the crazy with this much gusto (to be sure, prudently, from the safe perch of the far side of that passage through the Fire Swamp). His USENIX articles, linked on the same page, are also a ton of fun.
With that: open thread, with a special invitation for tales of the ridiculous at work.
Image: Nikolay Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky, Mental Calculation. In Public School of S. A. Rachinsky, 1895
Gin & Tonic
I am honestly surprised that you would be at all favorably disposed to those poseurs up the street.
Tenure at Harvard, wow! When I got tenure (not at Harvard!), I was pregnant with my first born and in some ways being pregnant made it easier, or at least less stressful. Having a miracle going on inside my body made the whole tenure thing seem like not a big deal by comparison.
Oh, thank goodness. Something fun. I just returned from seeing clients this a.m. and about to burn both my computer and television for all the downbeat being spewed.
@Gin & Tonic: I can (and do) snark, though with some glass-house issues, given my own education. But I will say this: every book I’ve written has been made possible, in part, by the Harvard libraries, which are a wonder of the world.
@TaMara (HFG): I’m glad to serve!
Also — I have been looking for an excuse to use that painting, which is just a treat to me.
So I no longer work at this company but up until a short while ago the annual self-evaluation (and let me emphasize it’s the evaluation you complete of your own performance) included the question, “Would you work with this person again?”
Not quite, or even close to the same, I use to give out an award to the employee who showed the most inclination towards the ridiculous in how to machine something. The Rube Goldberg award. Had pencil drawn flourishes and such, of course it was crappy and looked like a 7 yr old did it, on a piece of scrap paper stuck to my toolbox with a magnet. And yes I won it a couple of times. It was not an honor to earn it.
Gin & Tonic
@Butch: Would you?
How often did the phrase “Not if I can help it” appear?
@Gin & Tonic: I could spend all day with myself and not get tired of me.
@Butch: It’s a trap!
Tell me you said you were uncomfortable because of all the inappropriate touching.
Clever ruse or thumping dumb oversight? Hmmm.
Having edited for more years than I can count, I’ve seen too many egregious mistakes to have any go-to examples. The brain can’t handle the load.
I will cite the web page and press pieces for my workplace’s new HQ building, currently under construction, which proudly proclaimed it would have “Approximately twenty-one floors.” “Have you not decided?” asked I. “Are you going to keep building until you run out of money?” “Can I take a look at the blueprints?”
They have since removed this ambiguity, which is a good thing because the framing is complete.
Took a quick look at his website. He does have a sense of humor. In the past it was hidden by his need for tenure. Not hidden very well I might add. Seems like one sick puppy. So, a great read! I’m betting that I will enjoy it every time I check in. Which is, in my book, well worth doing.
I wish there were a way to get tenure without putting in the work. Like a Donald Trump tenure path for decent people.
@trollhattan: I also work as a contract editor for some small consulting firms and am amazed at the numbers they feel the need to call “approximate.” Such as 3.967 acres, which apparently is still “approximate.”
Torch of moonlight? Well, prose my purple!
You want egregious mistakes in signage and writing? Should have been in the military. Most everything written by committee or dunderdorf the magnificent.
That’s pretty awesome, especially for a Harvard man. ?
Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)
Doesn’t that defeat the point of tenure? Or is this a joke I don’t get and I just got r/whooshed?
Tenure is nice and all. I don’t begrudge it. But it would be nice if the rest of us outside a tiny slice of academia had even 1/10th of the job protections that tenure provides. Here in Clark County WA the local community college instructors have been on strike. Not for tenure. But to be treated with even 75% as well as local K12 teachers, as adjunct professoring at a community college is most definitely a lot lower on the food chain than even teaching high school.
IIRC this sign originated in Australia, where everybody is 20 percent funnier.
@trollhattan: Give them a break! Everyone know how imprecise (checks notes) architectural blueprints are!
@Baud: That’s called having rich, decent parents.
@oatler.: Well yes. It’s not the Saturn V spotlight of the Sun.
The obvious solution is to put in a ± value so people know just how approximate you’re being. Wouldn’t it be better to replace “approximately 3.967 acres” with “3.967 ± 0.003 acres”? It’s even more compact!
I think we’re feeling a sense of foreboding on Impeachment Eve. We’re expecting a shitshow followed by “total exoneration!” and it’s not fun. At least that’s where i’m at.
Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)
Does anybody know what’s going on with the Pet Calendar? It’s almost the end of January
When I was hired as an IBM mainframe programmer at Gigantic Tech Corp my cube was in a rental office building a few blocks from the main campus. They installed very persnickety locks you swiped your id badge thru. It usually took a couple swipes and some time you’d swipe in frustration until some opened the door for you. Complaints to security were ignored. I was stuck outside futilely swiping with no one around when I thought “in the movies they just slip a card in between the door jamb an the latch. In a couple tries I found if I leaned on the door and slipped in my badge it worked like a charm. This proved to be quicker and more reliable than using the reader so that’s how I opened the door for a few months. One day the highest ranking manager in the building was futilely swiping her badge at the door as I walked up. “Lean on the door” I said. She did and I slipped my badge in the latch and opened the door. She often worked late, alone in the building. I didn’t get in any trouble at all but man did she light a fire under the security guys. It earned me a rather fun role of “have Kelly look at this he’ll come up with a new angle”.
Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)
That’s what they’ll try to go for, but I doubt it will change any minds either way. Maybe make more people not paying complete attention to impeachment anti-Trump and GOP.
It’s going to be pretty clear that the Senate trial is a kangaroo court I imagine
@Goku (aka Amerikan Baka): In spite of the best laid plans, sometimes life intervenes.
I won’t include a specific timeframe because it is not my project, but I have reason to expect that the calendar will be available quite soon.
@oatler.: He’s a computer scientist!
@Tom Levenson: THANK YOU for sharing the Wisdom of James Mickens. Had I had a Computer Science professor like Mickens, I might have become a computer scientist instead of a writer (or at least gotten a better grade in Computer Science). Good to see that there is at least one professor at Harvard with a sense of humor. Though how do we know he wrote that and it wasn’t just some computer program?
Please devote part of today to listening to this speech, “we are here – today – honoring a man who gave his life for this country. I say “gave” his life because that is what he did. It was not taken from him, he gave it:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1P5U8R1N2k&feature=youtu.be&t=4071
@Gin & Tonic: My first job, in a History Dept. at USNA, was advertised as a 3 year position. The Chairman, a rather dim-witted US Civil War historian, hated the idea of hiring someone in ancient history which he (a) considered something of joke field, and (b) considered himself to be expert in (he wasn’t). So when unexpectedly the administration decided to make my job tenure track and have him convey the information, he decided the best solution was to tell me nothing! About a year later, as I was in the process of trying to find a new job to move on to, a colleague figured out that the Chair had concealed from me that I was on a tenure track job. Eventually he was forced by the department to inform me. That was my first brush with the insanity of the tenure “process”.
@Goku (aka Amerikan Baka):
Tom, Kudos this is the best post evah and I don’t type that lightly.
J R in WV
Yes, but .001 acre is actually ~43.56 square feet, which is a good sized piece of floor space, actually. There are smaller bathrooms, for example.
Thank you for this bit of whimsy. Made me smile much, and laugh. A welcome respite today.
@trollhattan: “Approximately twenty-one floors.”
perhaps they skipped numbering the 13th, so depending on which way you count…
Tenure. Once long ago, when I was a different person, I was looking to a future in academia. Then, well, I learned different. But I have friends in academia and it’s turning more and more into a replica of the commercial world. I have a friend with tenure, and it sure ain’t what it used-to-be: if he doesn’t bring in grants, he can’t even have thesis students. Which is …. insane. The monetization of everything is going to destroy …. everything.
 and this is in computer science: I quaver to think what it’s like over in the less …. money-flush disciplines.
Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)
Oh, I understand. Believe me, I understand that very well. I guess I did come across as impatient.
Mostly I was hoping that anybody, including Cole and those involved with the calendar, could give information about what was going on and when the calendar might be available
Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)
Who the fuck thinks Ancient History is a joke of a field? Sounds like he shouldn’t have been the Chair of the department
@Chetan Murthy: In some ways its easier in less flush departments. In general, humanities departments do not raise lots of grant money (there are exceptions, but not many). Universities keep them around for a bunch of reasons. Mine, an engineering school, has expanded its School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences in part because it has become clear to our science and engineering colleagues that, to use the cliche, “engineers who can’t write work for those who can” — and even more that once you get past the “fix this widget” or “run that gel” step on the ladder, being able to think in broader and most important, a range of ways about the world is actually really useful professionally. And not just in the professions: that kind of thinking is key to participation in the civic spaces in which societies decide whether or not to bother with science, or just whether to arc towards justice or not.
That’s one of the big reasons that Republican education “reformers” always emphasize vocational and narrowly targeted skills training at the expense of useless stuff like history.
On that theme, a now long retired colleague, Loren Graham, wrote a great short book called “The Ghost of the Executed Engineer” — about what happened long term to Soviet technical capacity when Stalin (literally) killed the idea of humanistic considerations in engineering. Spoiler alert: nothing good.
ETA2: Oh wait, that IS the guy! I was thinking of the “Life is terrible, let’s talk about the web” talk.
@Goku (aka Amerikan Baka): He once sat in to observe one of my classes, and interrupted repeatedly to ‘correct’ me by insisting that the US Civil War was not about slavery. That’s what kind of historian he was.
@smintheus: A crinoline and manners historian, I see.
But he had tenure so the university and all the rest of you were stuck with him for life. So I guess it goes both ways.
@Tom Levenson: That description works, though at the time I preferred ‘moron’. He fancied himself an expert on Thucydides for lord knows what reason. His interpretation of Thucydides is enshrined in the painfully stupid classroom scene of the movie “Patriot Games”, which he collaborated on during shooting. His interpretation: that Thucydides was intent to show that Athens lost the Peloponnesian War because it didn’t try hard enough to win. The mind boggles.
West of the Rockies
So this guy teaches at Harvard, eh? Couldn’t get hired at MIT?
@Goku (aka Amerikan Baka): Beth and I talked yesterday, and I can confirm that she is hard at work on the calendar.
Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)
Ugh. That’s disgusting and unprofessional. Did you correct him with the Cornerstone Speech?
@Goku (aka Amerikan Baka): I spent nearly the entire class arguing evidence and logic with him through gritted teeth.
Was working at the Fortune 100 Company.
Our Bright Boys and Girls, came up with a revolutionary new Industrial PC. So new, so revolutionary that the Brain Trust decided to set up a whole parallel Org to develop, build, market and sell it. Good Idea, bad execution.
There was a Tech Crunch here at the time. More job vacancies than there were workers.
So, the Company recruited from Ontario, ( where the Companies had driven their Tech into the ground with a decade of stupid decisions).
So, the new parallel Brain Trust was hired, and decided, off the bat, that none of our Bright Boys and Girls were bright enough to handle this new Revolutionary Product.
Anyway, they assembled their team, and it quickly became apparent that they were going to have to piggyback off “our” labour in places, because they couldn’t keep people in what were “reality based” areas, like Purchasing, Planning, Accounting.
So I wound up splitting my workday, between the two “Orgs”, but insisted that I remained on the payroll and Org chart of the one. I didn’t want “that side”, for example, having any say in my performance review.
So I’m sitting in the Launch Meeting, ( one of many “launch meetings”), and Mr. VP of Revolutionary ( with many letters from many prestigeous Business Schools after his name on his business cards, employee photo, nameplate, etc) announces the date where we will be making sales and the price point.
So, I call him “out” on the date. The “cycle” in our industry was 18 to 24 months, from launch to sale. At shows/promos/marketing, other people see our product. They “take one home to play with”. Their Bright Boys and Girls design it into their multi million dollar product, write code for it. They sell one of theirs, buy one or many of hours. That cycle takes 18 to 24 months.
Business Boy Wonder’s response, “It’s Revolutionary!”
Okay, I was pretty sure that side was little more than a cult, so on to second call out.
“Current Costs and Labour has us losing roughly $3700 per unit at that price point, and if we charge costs, we are priced out of the existing market. What is our plan to be profitable going forward?”
Business Boy Wonder’s response,
“We will make it up with volume”.
love the painting. the answer to the calculation problem posed therein (on the blackboard) is: 2
@davidh: I’m pretty sure it’s 42.
J R in WV
I think even a cursory reading of the CSA constitution with a highlighted comparison with the USA constitution [spoiler alert: The only difference is that the CSA constitution enshrines eternal slavery of people with African heritage in a non-amendable Article] will prove what the US Civil War was about.
No arguments possible after that trivial exercise. Of course, when dealing with a racist moron…
So was he a dumb guy or a smart guy with his head up his neither regions?
He could be a dumb guy who parked his head there, both is often an option.
Browsed through some online magazines and saw where my ISP was going to declare bankruptcy. Bother.
Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)
That works for grocery stores, not, I presume, electronics.
An industrial PC would have a very limited consumer base I imagine to begin with. And how many would be needed anyway? You’d start hitting diminishing returns sooner rather than later.
VP Boy Blunder sure sounds like a fucking idiot. Was the extra layers of corporate bureaucracy from the second organization that made the product so expensive?
O. Felix Culpa
@smintheus: Yeah. I am in a grumpy mood so, while I’m happy for Tom’s nephew and amused by his announcement, my ire at how the tenure system is manipulated against so many people – especially women and POC – is reignited. Sigh.
Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)
Let me guess, the ACW was really about “states’ rights”?
BS ACW pseudohistory aside, it was unprofessional of him to do that to in front of your students. Tenure shouldn’t protect assholes from being unprofessional or abusive. I can’t believe that’s even an issue. It’s self-evident imo
So he learned at Ralph Williams Ford?
From Cal Worthington?
“I lose money on every car but make it up in volume!”
Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)
I appreciate your answer and Beth’s hard work. I was curious about what was going on with it
Thanks — that’s well put. They’re always slagging on literature, history or — heaven forfend!! — ethnic studies as useless subjects we can no longer afford or that actively corrupt the youth of
Athens, er, America by prompting them to think critically and creatively.
As a feature writer for a newspaper I learned that if an editor began a sentence with “I was driving to work this morning … “ it meant trouble, because invariably it was followed by something like “ … and I saw a Mini Cooper with an Airedale and two cocker spaniels in it, and I thought, ‘We should do a story about Mini Coopers with Airedales and cocker spaniels in them.’ So give me 20 inches by noon Thursday. And don’t forget to make a photo assignment.”
As with forgetting to turn on the headlights after leaving a bright parking lot, sooner or later a truly smart person will figure out why it’s so dark.
J R in WV
Some of his earlier work here – a keynote entitled:
Q: why do keynote speakers keep suggesting that improving security is possible?
A: because keynote speakers make bad life decisions and are poor role models
In fairness, they have slightly different complaints about those subjects. Literature and History are both OK, so long as they “avoid politics”, i.e. as long as literature is limited to the traditional dead white male greats and history is focused on how great America is*. In contrast ethnic and gender studies are inherently wrong, since they’re just giving a platform for minority grievances.
*Except that they should be critical of the North for waging the War of Northern Aggression.
@Goku (aka Amerikan Baka): Very unprofessional, which was his brand in almost all things. There were several racist midshipmen who were delighted, but some of the other students were fascinated to see two faculty duking it out and at least a few were amused at how I swatted away his interventions. That’s not to imply that his unprofessional behavior was prompted by any desire to spark a debate that students would benefit from. He was just behaving like a d**k as usual. Multiple tenured faculty in the department told me explicitly during those years that my problems with this guy would evaporate if I made a show of sucking up to him, which was all that they (and I) thought he wanted out of his chairmanship.
One of the most interesting things Tolstoy said about Anna Karenina was in a letter to S. A. Rachinsky (the guy in the painting).
Years ago a friend of mine got tenure at CUNY. His text to me: “Hello tenure, goodby pants!”
@EmanG: Winter: Challenge accepted.
@Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)
Our Division built and sold between 50 and 70 thousand a year, of varying complexity and capabilities, along with a bunch of other tech. Globally, there were roughly half a million sold every year, and that was just when Industrial Computing was taking off. Big Companies had “standardized” on robotic manufacturing. Now of course, they put “robots” inside the products they make and sell, and many are controlled by an “industrial” computer. People tend to not really think about it, but every advancement in automation, from vending machines to self driving cars, needs new or more industrial computers along every stage of the process, and more and more networking between the computers. So in theory, it’s a market that should be as safe and profitable as running a Casino.
There are ways, in Tech where the costs comes down. Over time some costs came down because it wasn’t using “bleeding edge tech” any more. Some costs came down because Off the Shelf components came along and could be swapped out for custom, but some components are still as expensive because they are still sole source.
After three years of bleeding money, they were “folded” back into the Old Org, but the damage, ( financial, reputational, morale) had been done. A wound that eventually killed the Company.
Technically, the product wasn’t “expensive”. It was a “revolutionary” product entering a market that was and still is, very conservative. It enabled other “machines” to do things, machines had never done before, because the machines or their users had never before, had enough “brains”.
Setting up a parallel Org was a smart decision. The “machine” was going to have to be built, marketed and sold in a completely new way, and new markets were going to have to be built for it. The problem was it was staffed with “all the wrong people”.
The “right people” were the Bright Boys and Girls who had invented it, held the patents, and the other Bright Boys and Girls who had taken a Trash 80, stuffed it inside a metal box, programmed it to “talk” to some actuators, created the field of industrial robots, and managed the growth from 8 people in a garage to 500 people in a state of the art facility.
But we wern’t “good enough, too old school, not bleeding edge, etc”,
We also didn’t stick our credentials on every piece of paper that had our names on it. ( yes, the Blunder Boys even stuck their credentials on their emails.) Our lead Programmer only had 23 Advanced Degrees, spoke 6 languages, and she never once interrupted someone to correct them for not addressing her as “Doctor So And So”. She also told risque jokes on the Production Line in 6 languages and was willing in a crunch, to pull a night shift, making circuit boards on the plant floor.
Excellent news, someone getting tenure in computer science at Harvard! When I was in grad school, many years ago, Harvard had only tenured ONE person in CS, ever. Things are different now, but back then many institutions had the policy, more or less (I could probably track down references), of saying, “Okay, your time is up. We can tenure you or hire in someone new in your area. Are you better than anyone else, anywhere else, we could hire?” Thank goodness that’s gone away.
I had tenure at my former institution, and it was worthwhile to me for one main reason, aside from no longer having to worry about a go/no-go decision on whether I’d remain employed. You no longer had to focus on shorter-term projects that would lead to results within the tenure period. That is, you could take risks: you could switch areas within your field; you could write a book; you could try for big grants that have only a small chance of being funded; you could start a long-term project that might or might not see results in ten years (and I tried all of these).
Tenure isn’t a sinecure (mostly), in part because your department can assign you tasks (teaching, committees, etc.) which you can be held responsible for, and post-tenure evaluation (more and more a thing) can judge whether you’re doing your job or not.
Tenure is for the bold.
I had a Provost boss once who said, “So many tenured folks think they can do what they did yesterday for the rest of their lives.” How sad.
My father had just died the previous year and it made tenure easier because not getting it would not be worse than that. That helped with the stress though I got it in the end.
@Kent: Yes, this matters. Those of us who have tenure or who are eligible have to point out that we think something analogous makes sense across a lot of the working world. When my dad was working he stayed loyal to his company and it was loyal to him. It is just wrong when someone gives their most productive years to a firm only to be let go. But the status quo is we let you go when you don’t any longer make us as much money as another person who will also let go under the same circumstances.
Giant Military Weasel
A professor of English at my SLAC got tenure in the ?early-70s? The version of the story I heard is that he received a notice in his mailbox in the central building on the campus. Upon reading it, he galloped through the halls, waving the paper & shouting, “I’m gay, I’m gay, and there’s nothing they can do about it!”
Have a friend who worked for a large company in the automotive biz. Couple of years after the recession started their sales were in the toilet. So they figured a purge was in order. However as this is a pretty decent company they did it right. Or as right as could be done. He was 2 months short of 30 yrs. They gave him his 30 yr pension. A very nice severance package. And over that 30 yrs they had done excellent matching for a 401K. He walked away, retiring at 63 doing far better than I am, has a home, the company pays for his medicare advantage coverage and he can easily live within his monthly income that is over twice my SS and he never really has to worry about living expenses.
So you are right it matters if the company values it’s employees or only it’s bank accounts/stock price.
@Ruckus: Thanks for the reply1 Your friend was lucky and yet all that got him is what he deserved without luck.
It also matter politically. People use the way that most people are treated at work as a way to ratchet down protections for those who don’t get treated as badly. We want the ratchets to ratchet upwards, leading to those in less secure positions to be treated better.
@J R in WV: I personally blame the over-use of the acre, which isn’t really a good unit of measure. If the difference between square feet and acres wasn’t 43560, you wouldn’t see people trying to add two or three decimal places to it.
(Personally, I’d round it to 39.5 square chain.)