Why professors might be yawning and checking their cell phones


This question landed in my Quora inbox:

In the past, I met some professors to talk about my research. When I explained my findings, some started heavily yawning and keep looking at their cell phones. Why do professors yawn when they have to listen?

Let’s start with the least controversial observation:

When people are tired, they sometimes yawn.

Abductive inference suggests the hypothesis that those professors are tired.  This would be pretty credible: professors generally work very long hours, and if you ran into them in the kind of context where one talks to lots of professors about one’s research–that is to say, at a conference–then they probably travelled to get there, and are jet-lagged on top of their usual exhaustion.  Of course, abductive inference is weaker than deductive inference–people yawn for lots of reasons, including boredom and uncomfortableness–and even inductive inference, so I won’t belabor this point beyond mentioning that we have no data for inductive inference (“some” is not really data, as such) and no premises for deductive inference.

Let’s move onto another observation–not as uncontroversial as “people sometimes yawn when they are tired,” but still pretty accurate:

People sometimes receive texts that are super-important to them.  Maybe their kid is sick, or their spouse just had an automobile accident.  They might have just gotten laid off, and be needing an appointment with their Human Resources office to find out about unemployment insurance, health insurance, etc.  You might not care whether their spouse or child lives or dies; you might not care whether or not they can feed their family; but, it’s not very fair of you to expect THEM not to care.

I wasn’t able to find any indication in your question regarding whether or not you have evidence to share with us regarding the topics and contents of those texts.  I certainly don’t have any.  Do you?

Why do professors yawn when they have to listen?

Actually, nobody has to listen.  Not that I’m aware of, at any rate.  Most people will, though.  But, here’s a caveat: many researchers get bored very quickly by people who are not saying interesting things to them.  You need to grab their interest right away, or you will probably lose it; the higher up the food chain the researcher is, the quicker you are likely to lose their interest if you are boring them.  (Thanks to KJ for this observation–it made me be really careful about preparing to run into Famous Scientists, and it turns out that if you’re ready to interest Famous Scientists, you are ready to interest anybody.  Not that I’m claiming to be able to interest anybody, mind you.  (Catch the ambiguity?))

When I explained my findings, some started heavily yawning and keep looking at their cell phones.

So far, your question has not given the reader the ammunition to do any kind of inference but abductive, and as I said, that’s the weakest kind.  But, you may be onto something here.

Here’s the thing about findings:

  • They’re usually not nearly as interesting as the question.  Either they’re not surprising, or they don’t actually answer the question one way or the other, or they’re not convincing–maybe your experimental design was bad, maybe you didn’t have a large enough sample, etc.  A good question, though–a good question will grab people’s attention.
  • If you have to explain your findings, there might be a problem.  Here are the most likely things that I can say about any of my findings, personally:
    • They’re clear enough that anyone in my field could interpret them, so they don’t need to be explained to people in my field
    • They’re so unclear that I can’t even interpret them MYSELF, in which case I am not going to try to explain them to ANYBODY–I am going to ask THEM to explain my findings to ME.

So, there are a number of reasons that professors might yawn and/or check their cell phones while you’re explaining your findings to them.

  1. They’re tired
  2. There are urgent things going on in their lives
  3. They are jerks
  4. You bored them

My advice: consider option #4 carefully, and if you see a way to improve your interactions with people when you talk with (note that I did not say to) them about your research, then do so.  Then: assume that (1) and (2) are the case.  We should always consider the possibility that we need to do a better job, but if we need an explanation for someone else’s behavior, it’s best to be charitable both to them–and to ourselves.  Then: go back and try again!  Good luck with your research. #Iamatiredhungrycrankyprofessorwhoneedstoeatdinnerandthenreviewthreemorepapers


Elle était déchaussée, elle était décoiffée

In which Victor Hugo reminds me of my French grandfather.

Victor Hugo is well-loved in America for Les misérables–not for the book, but for the English-language musical that was made from it in 1980.  (It’s so popular that it has a nickname: Les mis.)  Even children know him; or, more accurately, know of his work, through the Disney film The Hunchback of Notre Dame–Quasimodo is a character recognized throughout American culture.

Hugo was a complicated guy.  He started out as a conservative, then became so vocally opposed to the dickwad “emperor” Napoléon III that he had to go into exile.  (Dickwad explained in the English notes below.)  He returned to Paris when the Second Empire fell, and stayed there through the Prussian siege of Paris in 1870-1871 and the Commune (my favorite of the four French Revolutions).  He fought against the death penalty, but was very much in favor of the colonization of West and North Africa; unlike many of his generation, he never spoke out about slavery.  Wikipedia lists a couple of long-term mistresses and lots of casual affairs–he was sexually active until a few weeks before his death at the age of 83.  (Reminds me of my French grandfather, who fathered my mother and aunt in his sixties.  ¡Muy fuerte!, as a Mexican friend said when I told him the story–I will not try to describe the accompanying gesture.)  He also seems to have been devoted to his children, both legitimate and extra-marital.

His poetry is far less known than his prose, but this being National Poetry Month, today I’ll give you a poem of his that I love.  It’s one of those things that is dear to me not because of the poem itself, but because of my associations with it, so you might not love it quite as much as I do.  Nonetheless: it’s a good one–if, like me, you are trying to learn to speak French, I recommend that you spring $0.69 for the recording and explication of it by Camille Chevalier-Karfis of the French Today series of French-language instructional materials.  Here’s the poem, and don’t forget to scroll down for the English notes, where I talk about the noun dickwad and the phrasal verb to spring [quantity of money] for [something].  Native speakers (of French): there are also a couple of French questions at the bottom of the page.)

Elle était déchaussée, elle était décoiffée

–Victor Hugo

Elle était déchaussée, elle était décoiffée,
Assise, les pieds nus, parmi les joncs penchants ;
Moi qui passais par là, je crus voir une fée,
Et je lui dis : Veux-tu t’en venir dans les champs ?

Elle me regarda de ce regard suprême
Qui reste à la beauté quand nous en triomphons,
Et je lui dis : Veux-tu, c’est le mois où l’on aime,
Veux-tu nous en aller sous les arbres profonds ?

Elle essuya ses pieds à l’herbe de la rive ;
Elle me regarda pour la seconde fois,
Et la belle folâtre alors devint pensive.
Oh ! comme les oiseaux chantaient au fond des bois !

Comme l’eau caressait doucement le rivage !
Je vis venir à moi, dans les grands roseaux verts,
La belle fille heureuse, effarée et sauvage,
Ses cheveux dans ses yeux, et riant au travers.

English notes

dickwad: jerk, asshole.  Like many other English-language slang terms for jerks, it is derived from a slang term meaning penis–in this case, dick, which is not quite baby-talk, but is nonetheless somewhat childlike or, at any rate, not very sophisticated.  And yet: don’t say it in front of my grandmother.

to spring for: to spend money on something.  It can have an implication of spending money for someone else, specifically, especially in the third person–but that is not necessarily the case.  Some examples (invented by me, for clarity):

  • I’m short on money right now, but yesterday I sprung for a book on famous Second Empire courtesans.  Tourists today would never guess what went on in the Palais Garnier in those days…  No implication that it was for someone else here–it’s clear from the context (at least to a native speaker) that I bought the book for myself.  (…and I did!)
  • My fucking parents won’t spring for week in Mexico for spring break.  (Here it’s pretty clear that the spoiled college student (not me) is complaining about a third party–his parents–not being willing to underwrite the expense of this particular “spring break” (school vacation around Eastertime) adventure for him.

The expression can also include a specific amount of money, in which case it is the direct object of the verb:

  • I recommend that you spring $0.69 for the recording and explication of it by Camille Chevalier-Karfis of the French Today series of French-language instructional materials.   (That’s from this blog post.)
  • I’m short on money right now, but I sprung $3.50 for a short book on the Battle of Waterloo yesterday.  (…which is absolutely true!)

…and yes, the past tense (and past participle) of to spring is sprung.

French question

Native speakers: in this context, how would you interpret riant au travers?

For LG, la fée que je crus voir.  


Prévert’s Pater Noster

Our Father who art in Heaven // Stay there

Notre Père qui êtes aux cieux
Et nous nous resterons sur la terre
Qui est quelquefois si jolie
Avec ses mystères de New York
Et puis ses mystères de Paris
Qui valent bien celui de la Trinité
Avec son petit canal de l’Ourcq
Sa grande muraille de Chine
Sa rivière de Morlaix
Ses bêtises de Cambrai
Avec son Océan Pacifique
Et ses deux bassins aux Tuilleries
Avec ses bons enfants et ses mauvais sujets
Avec toutes les merveilles du monde
Qui sont là
Simplement sur la terre
Offertes à tout le monde
Émerveillées elles-mêmes d’être de telles merveilles
Et qui n’osent se l’avouer
Comme une jolie fille nue qui n’ose se montrer
Avec les épouvantables malheurs du monde
Qui sont légion
Avec leurs légionnaires
Aves leur tortionnaires
Avec les maîtres de ce monde
Les maîtres avec leurs prêtres leurs traîtres et leurs reîtres
Avec les saisons
Avec les années
Avec les jolies filles et avec les vieux cons
Avec la paille de la misère pourrissant dans l’acier des canons.

Our Father who art in heaven
Stay there
And we’ll stay here on Earth
Which is sometimes so pretty
With its mysteries of New York
And then its mysteries of Paris
Which are worth every bit as much as the Trinity
With her little Canal of the Ourcq
Her Great Wall of China
Her Morlaix River
Her stupidities of Cambrai
With her Pacific Ocean
And her two fountains of the Tuilleries
With her good children and her bad apples
With all of the wonders of the world
That are here
Just right here on Earth
Free to all the world
In wonder over being such wonders
And who don’t dare admit it to themselves
Like a beautiful naked girl who doesn’t dare show herself
With the dreadful calamities of the world
Which are legion
With its legionnaires
With its torturers
With the masters of this world
The masters with their priests, their traitors, and their mercenaries
With the seasons
With the years
With the pretty girls and with the old jerks
With the straw of misery rotting in the steel of the cannons.

As someone smarter than me first observed: love poetry tends to be pro-love, while war poetry tends to be anti-war.  This one is by Jacques Prévert, a veteran of the First World War who was a major figure in French poetry, theater, and cinema after the Second World War.  There’s a lot of love in his poetry, a lot of Paris in his poetry–and a lot of war.  Like almost everyone who has ever been in a war, he hated it.  This poem follows a common pattern of Prévert’s war poetry: start off with something sweet and funny, and then…the war comes along.

Reading Prévert was the first thing that ever really made me grasp “the impossibility of translation.”  Most good poets will, at some point or another, play around with the sounds of the language; most of the time, I don’t notice it.  Prévert pushes it far enough for even me to get it.  For example, here are my second-favorite lines of the poem:

Avec les maîtres de ce monde
Les maîtres avec leurs prêtres leurs traîtres et leurs reîtres

The bolded words are all rhyming monosyllables.  I’ll just note in passing that when spoken, the lines have the effect of someone beating on a drum.  I’ll just note in passing that there is no way to translate that while maintaining that beautiful rhythm, that repetition of the internal rhyme.  I’ll just note in passing that as someone who loves the circumflex accent about as much as anything else he loves about the French language, the fact that each of those words has one is… a joy.  But, I’ll dwell a bit more on the vocabulary.

Le reître is obscure enough that even educated French people don’t necessarily know it.  Here’s what I found when I looked it up:

HIST. MILIT. Cavalier allemand mercenaire au service de la France aux xveet xvies. Vainement aussi il [le roi Henri III] tenta, en négociant, d’arrêter une armée allemande, vingt mille reîtres en marche pour rejoindre les rebelles de l’ouest et du Midi (BainvilleHist. Fr., t. 1, 1924, p. 179).

Translation: German mercenary in the service of France in the 15th and 16th centuries.  (I believe it’s also a regionalism meaning something like an old (retired?) soldier.  Being a fat old bald guy who spent 9.5 years in the service of his country: I can dig it.)

As an American, I find the word reître interesting because it opens a window on something quite topical: the US military’s low level of support for Trump.  He’s at under 50% approval among service members as a whole, and at 30% in the officer ranks.  Why?  Lots of reasons, some of which I’ve written about elsewhere.  The relevant one in this case: conscience.

When you join the American military, you take an oath.  The oath is not to protect the country, or the president, and certainly not to protect the flag.  (Has anyone ever been stupid enough to kill for a piece of cloth?)  The oath is to protect the Constitution.

What’s the Constitution all about?  Basic principles.  Principles in the sense of what is right, and what is wrong.  Note what is not in there: money.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.


Let’s go back to the definition of reître now:

German mercenary in the service of France in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Is there anything wrong with being German?  No.  Is there anything wrong with being in the service of France?  No.  Is there anything wrong with being a mercenary?  Absolutely.

Being in the American military does not have much to do with the question What would you die for?  That’s straightforward: in the American military, you might die if your boss makes a stupid mistake, but if your boss doesn’t make a stupid mistake, you’re probably coming home again.  The question, then, is this: What would you kill for?  The answer to that: basic principles.  Justice, liberty, tranquility.  Notice what’s not on that list: money.  The American warfighter is not a mercenary.

How does that relate to President Donald J. Trump?  Because he–never a fighting man himself–seems to think that we do, in fact, kill for money.  Here are the kinds of quotes that make an American military person think that their Commander in Chief should not, in fact, be their Commander in Chief.  They are President Trump talking about American commitments of military troops to our allies:

…why are we doing this all free?…They should be paying us for this. 

President Donald J. Trump, excerpted from a Fox News interview with Greta van Susteren on April 5th, 2013: response to a question on US troop commitments in South Korea.

they have to protect themselves or they have to pay us.

President Donald J. Trump, from an interview with Anderson Cooper, quoted here.

…they [South Korea and Japan] have to protect themselves or they have to pay us.  Here’s the thing, with Japan, they have to pay us or we have to let them protect themselves.

President Donald J. Trump, CNN Town Hall on March 29th, 2016, quoted here.

My 9.5 years in the US Navy ended over 30 years ago.  One of my ex-military buddies is less than 30 years old.  Point being: I have some personal insight into the views of American military veterans over a wide range of time.  I get why the kids in the military today support President Trump at a level even lower than the general American population.  I get why my military veteran friends support President Trump at a level much lower than the kids on active duty.  I don’t want to get paid to kill people.  What non-sociopath does?

Death of the Ball Turret Gunner: Lexical fields

I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze…

In honor of National Poetry Month…

In a book about war poetry, I once read a striking point: poetry about love tends to be pro-love, while poetry about war tends to be anti-war.  This observation is probably related to the American military’s low level of support for Trump (under 50% overall, as it has been for a long time; about 30% in the officer ranks): he seems to feel virile when orders a bombing or a missile strike, while the military people who have to carry it out are much more likely to just feel guilty. (The link goes to a list of articles on the subjects of guilt and shame in combat veterans from the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed/MEDLINE database of biomedical journal articles.)

Randall Jarrell, the author of today’s poem, was a professor at the University of Texas-Austin when the Second World War started.  He left the university in 1942 to join what was called at the time the Army Air Force.  His poem The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner is widely anthologized, and most Americans will have read it in college (université in French, where collège is the American middle school).  A ball turret is a small sphere of metal and glass containing a heavy machine gun, some ammunition, and the smallest guy possible.  (No parachute.)  The ball turrets to which Jarrell refers were mounted on the underside of an aircraft.  As Wikipedia puts it:

The gunner was forced to assume a fetal position within the turret with his back and head against the rear wall, his hips at the bottom, and his legs held in mid-air by two footrests on the front wall.

Other than a ball turret, the belly of a bomber is unprotected, and the tendency at the time was for fighter pilots to attack bombers either by diving down and firing from above–or by climbing and firing into the belly from below.

The Death Of The Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

English notes:

It wasn’t until I started writing this post that I noticed for the first time–bear in mind that I’ve certainly read the poem tens of times since college–how much the lexical field (le champ lexical) of sleep is woven through it.  To wit:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

lexical field is a set of words that are grouped by subject.  For example, in the poem, we have sleep, dream, to wake, nightmare.  This is an odd kind of grouping in linguistics, where we tend to group words by structural characteristics (e.g. sleep and dream can both be either nouns or verbs, and their nouns and verbs have the same form; phosphorylate and phosphorylation are a verb and a noun that are related by the addition of -tion to the former) or by semantic characteristics (e.g. to nap is a way of sleeping, pail is a synonym of bucket).  Subject, the grouping characteristic of a lexical field, is thus an odd sort of concept from a linguistic perspective–to the extent that a language is a structure, it is difficult to see how subject would be an element of that structure, rather than, say, an element of the world that we use a language to talk about, or an element of how we talk about that world.  In my profession–natural language processing–the concept corresponding to lexical fields is the lexical chain, which can serve as an indicator of the structure of a text and creates a context for disambiguating and otherwise interpreting the words of that text.  See this paper by Jane Morris and my colleague Graeme Hirst for more information on the topic:

How I used lexical field in the post: It wasn’t until I started writing this post that I noticed for the first time how much the lexical field of sleep is woven through it.

French notes

la tourelle: turret.  In a submarine, it is the conning tower.

la tourelle boule: ball turret.





The tip of your breast//has traced a new luck-line//in the hollow of my hand

The poetry of Jacques Prévert was one of the nicer discoveries of the past year for me.  Prévert did his military service around the time of the First World War (I’m not sure when–English-language and French-language Wikipedia give different dates).  During the Second World War, he protected the Jewish composer Joseph Kosma, who would set some of his poetry to music–and who joined the maquis (combatants in the Resistance) and was injured when he jumped on a mine during the liberation of Nice.

There are some themes that recur quite frequently in Prévert’s poetry.  They include Paris and the Seine; love; and war.  This being the very first day of National Poetry Month, I’ll give you one of his love poems, along with my attempt at a translation–we’ll get to some of the war poetry later.  The poem is Sanguine, published in 1951.

la pointe de ton sein
a tracé une nouvelle ligne de chance
dans le creux de ma main

the tip of your breast
has traced a new fate line
in the hollow of my hand 


La fermeture éclair a glissé sur tes reins
et tout l’orage heureux de ton corps amoureux
au beau milieu de l’ombre
a éclaté soudain
Et ta robe en tombant sur le parquet ciré
n’a pas fait plus de bruit
qu’une écorce d’orange tombant sur un tapis
Mais sous nos pieds
ses petits boutons de nacre craquaient comme des pépins
joli fruit
la pointe de ton sein
a tracé une nouvelle ligne de chance
dans le creux de ma main
joli fruit
Soleil de nuit.

The zipper slid down your lower back
and all of the happy storm of your loving body
right in the midst of the shadows
suddenly burst out
And falling on the waxed floor, your dress
made no more noise
than an orange peel falling on a rug
But beneath our feet
its little pearl buttons crackled like seeds
Blood orange
beautiful fruit
the tip of your breast
has traced a new fate line
in the hollow of my hand
Blood orange
beautiful fruit
night sun.

A number of Prévert’s poems have been set to music.  Here’s Yves Montand singing Sanguine:


…and here’s a guy with an odd accent–probably no odder than mine, me being, like him, an American–reading it:

French notes

la chiromansie : palmistry.  The chi is pronounced ki.  How would one know that, other than by looking it up (I had to)?  I don’t know–the pronunciation of chi usually baffles me.

la fermeture éclair: zipper, except when you’re talking about the zipper on a pair of pants, which is la braguette, as I learned the hard way in a café on rue des Écoles one day–a story for another time, perhaps.

A question (I’m lookin’ at you, Phil dAnge, and I have a poem for you later this month): why is the feminine form of éclair written without a final e?  Looks like clair to me, whose feminine is claire. 

Focus versus feedback: Blogging about your grad school experience

Don’t think the picture matches the topic? Read the post.

My response to a question on Quora (English notes below):

Screen Shot 2019-03-18 at 12.40.21

I agree with the other answers that suggest that you focus on your research work, as opposed to blogging.

Having said that: I myself am an academic, and I sometimes benefit from using my blog to solicit feedback on work in progress. Particularly, I will post the occasional introduction to a paper and ask people to tell me what parts of it are not clear. Since feedback on this specific kind of question is better if it comes from non-specialists in your field than if it comes from specialists, a blog with a random readership base is actually a pretty good way to get it.

Note that I do not recommend this approach to getting feedback if you are not yet at a place in your career where you see critiques as attempts to help you, as opposed to attempts to attack you! Thick skin is a prerequisite in academia in general, and certainly when you ask others to tell you about the problems with your work. Having said that: comments on your blog might be a good way to start getting thick skin!

Good luck with your studies!

English notes

to solicit: When followed by a noun, this means “to ask for (something).”  Examples:

  • We solicited participation in an online survey through national and city LGBT organizations and personal contacts to examine differences in depression, anxiety, alcohol and tobacco use, and body mass index among lesbian, gay, and transgender veterans (n = 252) in suburban/urban and rural/small town locations.  (Source: Kauth, Michael R., Terri L. Barrera, F. Nicholas Denton, and David M. Latini. “Health differences among lesbian, gay, and transgender veterans by rural/small town and suburban/urban setting.” LGBT health 4, no. 3 (2017): 194-201.) It’s so interesting to me that neither Trump nor any of his children have served in the US military–and yet, he wants to keep transgender troops from doing so.  Could we have, like, at least five of them to make up for his, Melania, Donald Jr., Eric, and Ivanka’s failure to serve?
  • This study utilized qualitative interviews and focus groups with veterans with documented polytrauma/TBI history to explore veterans‘ perceived barriers to employment and vocational rehabilitation program participation, as well as to solicit thoughts regarding interest in an evidence-based vocational rehabilitation program, the Individual Placement and Support model of Supported Employment (IPS-SE).   (Source: Wyse, Jessica J., Terri K. Pogoda, Ginnifer L. Mastarone, Tess Gilbert, and Kathleen F. Carlson. “Employment and vocational rehabilitation experiences among veterans with polytrauma/traumatic brain injury history.” Psychological services (2018).
  • It is critical to solicit and use input from team providers and leaders when establishing PST services.  (Source: Chinman, Matthew, Rebecca Shoai, and Amy Cohen. “Using organizational change strategies to guide peer support technician implementation in the Veterans Administration.” Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal 33, no. 4 (2010): 269.

The verb to solicit is interesting in that if you use its nominalization solicitation without an object–i.e., without specifying the thing being asked for–the most obvious interpretation of it means to ask to purchase the services of a prostitute.  Examples:

…and the adjectival form means something completely different:

solicitous: showing or expressing concern.  Examples:

  • solicitous inquiry about his health (Source: Merriam-Webster)

…and then the “agentive” nominalization solicitor has yet another unrelated meaning:

solicitor: “the chief law officer of a municipality, county, or government department” (Source: Merriam-Webster). Examples:




How I used it in the response to the question:

I myself am an academic, and I sometimes benefit from using my blog to solicit feedback on work in progress.