Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Book review: Academaze

I'm posting my thoughts on Academaze as a single review rather than a series of chapter responses, because I was asked to post a review in exchange for an advance copy of the book.  The book is written by the pseudonymous Sydney Phlox, also known by the pseudonym Xykademiqz, under which she has a blog.  If you've been reading her blog for several years (as I have) then the book may be more valuable as a reference than as a cover-to-cover read.  The book is not a transcript of her blog, but many sections are edited versions of her blog posts.  Fortunately, it can be read in pieces or in nonlinear order, for those who want to just focus on certain topics.  However, you really should read the whole thing at some point, because she builds up a pretty comprehensive view of an academic career.

The best audience for this book is new professors.  "How to survive the tenure track" seems to be a staple of the academic blogosphere (blogs being a genre that were big in the early 2000's, but now seem a little musty compared to short clickbait articles linked on Twitter or Facebook or whatever Kids These Days are using), but this one is better-written and more thorough than most writings in that genre.  Also, so much of the academic blogosphere is either focused on biomedical researchers (a very different path than physical science) or humanities and social science (great people, but very different career issues). The book and blog by Xykademiqz fill a void for physical scientists. Also, she says plenty of things that are conventional, but she says plenty of things that are just her own genuine opinion, and she neither treats The System as cruelly illegitimate and in need of being completely trashed and replaced with something "transformative" (which the enthusiastic types of the Right-Thinking Classes seem to like) nor does she act as an apologist.

I would highly recommend her book for anyone who is considering a career at a research university, at least in physical science or engineering.  She's pretty practical about what it takes to get tenure.  For people like myself, at undergraduate-focused institutions, I would still recommend it, but with the explanation that while some of it is absolutely dead-on applicable to places off the R1 pedestal, other parts are a way to learn the things you didn't know about "how the sausage is made" when you were a grad student or postdoc.  People at undergraduate-focused institutions will face a lot of similar issues with teaching (only moreso), we still need to get onto sustainable research trajectories (only without quite the same dizzying heights of money-grubbing and name recognition), and we still gripe with colleagues (even if the specifics of the political battles are a bit different when you're not fighting over massive research lab space).  If you're at a research-focused institution read it as a manual.  If you're at an undergraduate-focused institution read it as an exploration of faculty psychology with some practical specifics mixed in.

One nice feature of the book is her cartoons, mostly from 1 to 4 panels, done by herself.  They add a nice mood to the book, injecting some levity into a genre (advice books) that too often induces either neurosis or a feeling of "I Am Now Enlightened!"

Finally, although her academic readers won't need to be sold on this, the book does a nice job of conveying all of the many things that professors do when we aren't in the classroom.  The general public seems to think that our only "real work" is teaching classes and any time not in the classroom (especially summer!) is just for slacking off.  Because so much of it is an insider take with advice for aspiring insiders, it's probably not quite the right book to recommend to non-academics who think we're lazy and under-worked, but it is in the right direction.  Maybe some excerpts would be useful reading for the non-academic public.  Even better, maybe she could write a second book telling the public what professors do when we're not in a classroom!

In short, buy this book as a gift for anyone seriously considering a career at a research university, and share excerpts with anyone who thinks professors  don't do much work.

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