In 2017-2018, I drafted a proposal for a Professional Improvement Fellowship at UMass Amherst. This new program offered non-tenure-system faculty, after 10 years of service, a semester of professional release to accomplish a significant academic project β€” not unlike sabbatical for tenure system faculty. The creation of the Professional Improvement Fellowship program was the outcome of two years of difficult negotiations during the period that I served on our faculty and librarian union’s bargaining committee. Having been in the Biology Department at UMass Amherst for nearly 20 years at that point, I was very eager to participate in this program.

Every UMass Amherst honors student needs to complete a thesis in order to graduate with honors. In the Biology Department, especially, there are too few opportunities for individually-contracted honors theses, so the Commonwealth Honors College had developed a course type where a group of 12-15 students could work with a faculty member over two semesters to write a thesis. But at that time there were no honors thesis seminars offered in the life sciences, so my proposal was to have students develop a scientific instrument to collect data about some life science question.

In addition to years of teaching Writing in Biology to juniors, and running the now-shuttered Biology Computer Research Center, I had already co-taught a one semester Maker course that tried to have students do projects like this in a single semester, but it turned out that just wasn’t enough time: students could sorta learn the technology, but often didn’t have time to actually make anything, let alone collect enough data to do anything with it. So proposing it take place over two semesters made sense to me. Plus, the Commonwealth Honors College offers research grants to students that could provide them funding to buy the necessary components.

The first year I pitched the proposal for Open Science Instrumentation and Data Collection to the Biology Department it was rejected. But with a different chair the following year, it was accepted and I was awarded a fellowship with a full release from my professional duties during Spring 2020 to develop the materials for the course. I then worked for three months in the large metal shed UMass Amherst All-Campus Makerspace using the Software Carpentry curriculum model to develop modules to set up a Raspberry Pi, use the Pi to program an Arduino via the command line, program in python, and then use python to access the General-purpose input/output (GPIO).

As it turned out, however, something else happened that spring: in March 2020, UMass Amherst closed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which bluntly took a lot of the fun out of my fellowship. My mother has lived with us since our eldest was two and she was now at high risk of complications from the virus, as was I, so now instead of walking to the Makerspace, I could safely use only the office in my partially finished basement (where I’m still writing now) to work remotely. Travel to learn more about projects elsewhere was no longer possible.

A centerpiece of my proposed course was that students would be working in the All-Campus Makerspace. But with the campus still functionally closed the following fall, I decided to adapt the course to be taught remotely via Zoom. I had a relatively small number of students the first year, but it actually all worked astonishingly well. Honors students are amazing: they have brilliant ideas, are willing to work incredibly hard, and have the self-discipline to work independently.

Typically for an honors thesis, a student is adopted into a research lab, learns the approaches being used in the lab, and becomes familiar with the specific literature that underlies the research enterprise. In my course, by contrast, students came up with some idea of their own and pursued it to the best of their ability. I have always believed that the traditional university education gives students far too few opportunities to pursue their own questions. Many students who take my Junior Year Writing in Biology class, that also requires students to write a proposal and conduct a small research project, say that it is the first time they’ve done anything at UMass Amherst that wasn’t simply following directions. Juniors actually say that.

Students do come up with amazing ideas. Here are just a handful of the ones from the first semester of Open Science Instrumentation and Data Collection:
“Utilizing Background Oriented Schlieren Imaging to Slow the Spread of Respiratory Disease”
“Automated recording of daily vibroacoustic and behavioral activity in Xylocopa virginica”
“A Novel High Frame Rate Photography System for Optical Motion Tracking of Insect Flight”

Over four years, I supervised a total of 44 honors theses like these where students built a scientific instrument to collect a body of data to gain insight into some life science question. Each project lies at the intersection of life sciences (designing the question and data collection strategy), engineering (selecting a hardware platform, sensors, and wiring them together), and informatics (programming the hardware platform to receive and record the data).

One of my original design criteria for the course was that there would be no artificial deadlines; the only deadlines were external ones: for the Honors Research Grant, for the Undergraduate Research Conference in the spring they were obligated to present as a condition of their Honors Research Grant funding, and for their final portfolio itself at the end of the Spring semester. All of the other milestones and deadlines they had to establish for themselves.

In the fall semester, I led the students through the course materials I had developed about using the Raspberry Pi and Arduino while at the same time they developed their research questions and wrote proposals for an Honors Research Grant, which was typically due in October. In addition, each week I had a one-on-one consultation with every student. That allowed me to offer individual advice and guidance, plus technical (and sometimes emotional) support, and it gave each student an excuse to be accountable for staying on track. Some students chose to use every minute of the consultation to work together with me, while others just wanted to check in and then work independently.

In the spring, students built, tested, and used their devices. Once their funds were available, they submitted orders, received their components, and built a prototype. We budgeted enough money for them to test the prototype to re-engineer and build a final device. At the same time, students needed to submit an abstract and prepare a presentation for the Undergraduate Research Conference, usually far in advance of completing their data collection. And, in the end, students wrote up a Creative Portfolio to submit as their thesis document.

Students learned a lot, both about the subject and themselves. They learned the science of their question by conducting a literature review. They developed technical skills using the educational materials and exploring the hardware platforms. They learned about agile project management to manage a large, long-term project. And they got to learn about the red tape of trying to order things via a large institution.

In Spring 2024, after a year of serious health issues that required I only teach remotely, I decided to pursue a phased retirement where I would teach half-time (remotely) for two years and then retire. I proposed to continue to teach this honors thesis seminar, which is still the only life science honors thesis seminar, is very popular with the students that take it, and (I believe) a nearly unique course in the world. But the Biology Department refused: apparently the “credit” for the course accrues to the wrong college. Instead, I will continue teaching my Writing in Biology course and act as the Presiding Officer of the Faculty Senate.

I’m sad to not be able to teach this honors thesis seminar any longer, but I’m gratified that I got to teach it at all: it was an amazing experience to work with so many dedicated students and to give them license to apply their creativity to so many fascinating problems. I learned a vast amount and was never bored while I tried to ride herd on all their weird and wonderful ideas. Students told me they learned more from this experience than any other at UMass Amherst. I will never forget their passion and excitement when, after immense struggles, they finally got something to work. It was the experience of a lifetime.

On May 20, 2024, I served as the Presiding Officer of an Emergency General Faculty Meeting for UMass Amherst. More than a thousand of the faculty were split between a large room on campus and via Zoom. It was by far and away the largest meeting β€” let alone hybrid meeting β€” I had ever tried to run.

The meeting was called, following the Constitution of the Faculty Senate, in response to a petition of more than 10% of the faculty and librarians. The meeting had a single agenda item: a resolution calling for no confidence in the Chancellor. On May 7, the Chancellor had directed police to disperse students protesting the war in Gaza. During the police action, students and faculty were arrested and there were some violent clashes between the police and protesters.

The emergency meeting was organized frenetically on extremely short notice during the Commencement weekend. A handful of us on the Rules Committee exchanged hundreds of emails to nail down the agenda, try to develop a mechanism to enable faculty to vote securely, and draft a long and comprehensive set of ground rules for running the meeting.

There were a number of technical challenges. Faculty had difficulty registering, email systems rejected the ballots as spam, the audio from some of the mics was nearly inaudible via Zoom. We did the best we could to resolve the issues and, by the end of the meeting, we had things working about as well as could be reasonably expected.

The meeting went on and on. Passions were high, but most people respected the ground rules and were patient as we worked though the technical issues. We came to the final vote after four hours of discussion and consideration of an amendment to change “no confidence” to “censure”. In the end, more than 800 faculty voted and 473 voted no confidence, so the motion carried. And after four hours and fifteen minutes, I adjourned the meeting.

The vote carries only symbolic weight. The UMass System President and Board of Trustees have expressed their unwavering support of the Chancellor. Still, the resolution minimally provides notice to the Chancellor that hundreds of faculty are incredibly angry and upset. As soon as the vote was announced, he issued a statement expressing disappointment, but accepting the results and promising to work to rebuild trust.

Those of us organizing and running the meeting received many messages of appreciation and support, though not everyone was entirely satisfied. I’m satisfied, however, that we did the very best we could under the circumstances. And I think the outcome speaks for itself.

One thing I realized is that hybrid meetings work a lot better when they’re convened and run by a remote participant. People in the room tend to ignore remote participants. A remote participant is better positioned to make sure everyone gets to fully participate.

But perhaps the most important outcome was that, during the meeting, someone noticed the poster for Revin’s Heart in the background of my Zoom image and bought a copy. They emailed me to ask about order of the series, but I pointed out that the collected edition contains all of the stories β€” plus some side stories β€” so they should be all set.

When I agreed to run a vendor booth at the Watch City Steampunk Festival for the Small Publishing in a Big Universe Marketplace, I was hopeful that several authors might also attend to help set up and sell books. It sounded like several authors had expressed interest. But, as the event approached, it became apparent I was going to be on my own. The day before, my wife took pity on me and agreed to go with me to the event to keep me company and, at least, make sure I could go to the bathroom when necessary.

Since I normally get up pretty early anyway, I had been planning to leave early the morning of the event. But my wife suggested we travel the night before and stay in a hotel so we could have a more leisurely time. She tracked down a room for us and made reservations, so β€” after my last class on Friday β€” we hopped in the car and drove to Waltham. There was a restaurant across the street from the hotel that had an outdoor patio and a good beer selection, so we had a pleasant evening.

The morning of the event, we drove to the common where the festival was getting set up and, after checking in, found a place to park where I could leave the car that wasn’t too far from where our booth was located. Waltham doesn’t allow vehicles on the common, so we had to move everything from the car about 200 yards. It took about 45 minutes to schlep everything over and then an hour to set up the tent and table, hang the banner and flags, set out the books, and get price tags on everything. But we were easily ready by the time the festival began.

The festival was well attended. There were thousands of people of all ages, many wearing steampunky costumes: top hats with goggles and fascinators; elaborate steampunky backpacks, carts, and gear; dresses with hoop skirts and bustles; and pseudo-victorian clothing. Kevin Harkins of Kevin Harkins Photography shared a gallery of imagery that includes a lot of nice pictures of people’s costumes.I wore my straw fedora with steampunky goggles and my maroon paisley smoking jacket over a t-shirt with the Water Dragon logo. A number of people commented positively on my suitable attire.

Initially, there had been a prediction of rain. In the end, the weather was cloudy but fair. It was a bit cool β€” not too breezy β€” with the sun peeking through in the afternoon. If it had been 10 degrees warmer, it would have been perfect.

I developed a pitch to welcome people to the table: “We’re Small Publishing in a Big Universe β€” a cooperative of independent authors and small presses that have collaborated to stock a table for you. I’m an author with Water Dragon Publishing and, since I’m here, my books are in the middle.” Then I would describe my two books and introduce the books by the other authors. Finally, I would invite them to pick up the books to learn more about them and not hesitate to ask me questions.

We sold a fair number of books. My books sold best: about half the sales were Revin’s Heart followed by Better Angels: Tour de Force and Snail’s Pace (the other fairly steampunky book). I sold two hardcovers, which kind of surprised me and made me glad I’d brought a few. I was disappointed to not be able to sell more books by the other authors. A lot of people took business cards: both SPBU’s and mine.

At the end of the festival, we had to pack everything up and schlep it back to the car. Our feet were pretty sore by this time. Once we finally had everything in the car, we drove to Dirigible Brewing, which was on the way home to have dinner and a well-earned beer.

For my wife and I, the trip was a bit nostalgic because it hearkened back to the time before I went to graduate school when we spent a year on the road together doing educational assemblies. Every morning, we drove to an elementary school unpacked and set up a portable planetarium, did shows, then packed up and headed to the next school. It was a fun time of our lives.

Several people asked if we’d be back next year and I indicated I thought we probably would. It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. And it’s always nice to sell some books.

Being an author has ups and downs. It’s a constant rollercoaster. When you submit manuscripts you get acceptances and rejections. The same when you apply to present at conventions. Or apply for grants. You can torment yourself by watching the book scan sales numbers. Or Amazon ranking. Or reviews at Goodreads (and elsewhere).

When good things happen, it’s wonderful. Getting a manuscript accepted is a great feeling.

When bad things happen, you just have to grit your teeth and go on.

But sometimes you have a long run of bad luck. It can get very discouraging when everything seems to get rejected or turned down. When that happens, you question what you’re even doing. Why keep trying? Why bother? Why not just do something else.

I got to see John Hodgman perform in Northampton a few years ago. This was around the time he was promoting Vacationland. One of the themes was the ineffable quality of celebrity. People kept asking him how he became a celebrity, as if there was some secret or recipe. He said he spent a lot of time trying to figure out why *this* thing had gone viral whereas all these other things he’d been doing before or after did not. Eventually, he decided there wasn’t any difference. It was just luck or happenstance. But, even though you couldn’t predict what might lead to success, it was clear that the only way to be sure to fail was to not keep doing your art. It could only happen if you were making stuff and putting it out there.

So, even when I’m down. Even when I feel like nothing is getting traction. Even when I feel like there’s no point. I just keep putting one foot in front of the other and soldiering on. And maybe — just maybe — one of the things I write will find an audience and lead to greater things. Maybe.

Twenty-eight years ago, I joined the Biology Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. As a freshly-minted PhD in Science Education, I was hired to the direct the Biology Computer Resource Center (BCRC) β€” a small computer lab that was both a computer classroom and drop-in space for undergraduates.

I really enjoyed the educational and technical work I did for the Department and University. The Internet was new and we built a lot of interesting and innovative educational resources. When I was hired, I had no formal teaching responsibilities, but over time I developed a number of face-to-face and online classes which offered unique learning opportunities for students.

During the pandemic, the Department closed the BCRC and my job responsibilities became solely teaching. When I was no longer obligated to spend all of my summers, breaks, and intersessions maintaining computer systems, I decided to repurpose that time for writing fiction. Since then, I’ve published several short stories and two books of fiction. And written a number more that are, as yet, unpublished.

Last year, after a long stay in the local hospital, I was diagnosed with a chronic lung condition that makes it likely I will become very ill from any respiratory infections. I’ve been working remotely since then, and I’m so grateful that the University has provided this accommodation that has allowed me to continue working. But remote work is isolating and difficult. And I’d also like to have even more time for writing fiction.

This evening, I was notified that my application to do a phased retirement over the next two years has been approved. Beginning in Fall 2024, I will teach only half time for two academic years and then fully retire. I’m looking forward to making a gradual transition into retirement and being able to devote myself more to my new creative endeavors.

Four years ago, I discovered what shimenawa were and I made one for my beloved sakura tree. But it was time for a new one. The old one had gradually disintegrated in the weather and only part of a single shide remained. So I gathered supplies over the past week and reminded myself how to construct the tassels and shide to put up a new one in time for the cherry blossoms

Our tree was grown from cuttings gifted to the Town of Amherst by the Nation of Japan in honor of William Clark. The tree has struggled in recent years since we needed to have a trench cut in the front yard that impinged on its roots. But we’ve been working with an arborist to nurse it back to health.

I look forward to the cherry blossoms every year and this year, perhaps, more than ever. Now I’ll have a nice, fresh shimenawa to go with them.

On May 11, 2024, I will be bringing a Small Publishing in a Big Universe (SPBU) vendor table to the Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. I’ve never attended Watch City before, but it looks like it will be a lot of fun.

Currently, we are scheduled to have four or five authors sharing the table. I will be sure to bring Revin’s Heart, which is steampunky fantasy adventure. (And I’ll also bring a few copies of Better Angels: Tour de Force, just in case.) But Water Dragon Publishing has a few other steampunky offerings. And, as I say, there will several other authors there as well.

The SPBU model has been doing very well! It lets indie and small-press authors share the cost of a vendor table and avoid the need to get a tax identity or manage the purchasing system to sell books independently. A big traditional publisher might be able to just justify a table of their own, but very few indie or small press publishers could. We tried out the approach experimentally at Worldcon in Chicago and we’ve had tables for SPBU at Baycon, Arisia, and Boskone. It’s been a boon for authors who want to attend a con and they can tell people where they can buy their books.

Recently, I was gratified to receive two extremely generous reviews of Revin’s Heart. Reviews are critical for getting the word out about new books.

The first was by The Faerie Review. The reviewer, Lily Shadowlyn, had read the entire Revin’s Heart series at the time the final novelette came out and had written a series of enthusiastic reviews about each of them. In the last review, she had said, “I would love to see all the stories compiled into one larger book or even a box set bundle someday, although it would be a hefty tome, the stories it would contain would be worth it!” So, when the collected edition came out, she reread the stories and the additional material had many nice things to say.

[T]hink Treasure Planet with magic and LGBTQIA+ rep. The story moves along smoothly, and the action will get your heart racing. The characters are unforgettable, and you won’t see the twists coming.

Lily Shadowlyn

The second review was a complete surprise to me. Damian Serbu wrote a review for Queer Sci Fi. In his review, he speaks glowingly about the worldbuilding, story structure, and pacing of Revin’s Heart. But his description of Revin made me feel wonderful that someone really got what I was aiming for.

Revin himself is a fabulous character. You pull for him from the first. He possesses a charming combination of hurt because of not being accepted for his true nature with a hope for a better future and acceptance for those around him, no matter who they are. And Revin blends a youthful naΓ―vetΓ© about the world, especially within the realm of the pirates, with a bravery and courage in his exploits.

Damian Serbu

I’m so grateful for the excellent reviews. It’s really hard to get reviews. Every author wishes that more people who read books would share a review β€” even if only to say, “I read this and it was OK.” But to get such lengthy, positive reviews is extraordinary and I hope they lead to more people discovering Revin’s Heart and enjoying it.

In 2023, I had been scheduled to appear at Boskone, but ended up instead in the hospital. It was a big disappointment and so I was excited this year when I was again selected to appear on the program.

The second weekend in February happens to be also the second week of the semester, so I had a regular workday on Friday. I drove to Boston the night before and then had an early morning meeting and office hours. I had just enough time between office hours and class to run down to the parking garage to meet my confederates to open my car and help move in the books for the Water Dragon dealer table. After class, I was able to get registered, pick up my packet, and then spend a little time selling books before it was time for my first panel.

My first panel was Write My Doctoral Thesis: Science Edition. When I had signed up, I hadn’t noticed that this was supposed to be comedic event (another participant told me that they were under the same misapprehension, which made me feel better for having missed this crucial fact.) After the fact, it was a lot of fun. But during the session it was rather stressful: It was rather like playing madlibs with very smart opponents in front of a live audience. But I felt like I made good contributions and got some laughs. And I was pleased to meet the other participants who all seemed like great folks.

Saturday was my busy day with a reading followed immediately after by a panel, then a break, the book festival, and another panel immediately after. The reading was reasonably well attended: I read The Better Angels and the Military Morale Mishegoss, an excerpt of The Third Time’s the Charm, and The Better Angels and the Super Sticky Situation. Then I had to run to the Speculative Evolution panel. The participants were well selected, with people representing diverse perspectives. I was bit disappointed that the Book Festival was kind of a bust: I had a handful of people who came to speak with me, but it was a general problem: there just weren’t many people there. My last panel, Romance in Speculative Fiction was fascinating: it was an interesting group of participants. A number of audience members, afterwards expressed how much they valued my comments that provided representation for queer and non-binary perspectives.

I spent Sunday in the dealer room selling books. Revin’s Heart bundles sold well, although it became clear that people were planning to get copies of the fix-up which is now out (although I did not have copies to sell at the con.) This should surprise no-one. I was a bit more disappointed that, although people liked my pitch for Better Angels, it did not sell particularly well. People would listen to the pitch, say it sounded good, and then not buy the book. So realized a little tweak. Rather than calling it “light-hearted space opera” I’ve started calling it “fluffy military space opera” which will hopefully generate the right amount of cognitive dissonance.

Boskone is just a month after Arisia, but the two events are quite different. Boskone trends older β€” maybe 25 years older. And the participants seem clearer on what they want. And what they want is traditional sci fi like they read when they were younger. They seem therefore less interested in the new offerings of a small press. The booth just next to ours was MIT Press selling, among other things, books by Stanislav Lem (mostly written in the 1960s and 1970s) that seemed very interesting to the participants.

Sunday afternoon, we packed everything up and I drove home, getting back just before sunset.

Trying to publicize your books is hard. It’s one of the things that you don’t think much about until you try to transition from “writer” to “author.” At least I didn’t. But I had seen enough authors talking about the need to do publicity that I had some idea what I was getting myself into. What I didn’t know anything about, however, was advertising.

Last summer, I saw a Facebook group that was going to offer a free starter class for people who wanted to learn about advertising using ads at Amazon. I decided to spend a little money up front just trying out the advertising system. I first tried letting Amazon construct the ad (basically just showing a book among search results, I think). But I think I clicked something wrong and it didn’t work at all. It didn’t cost anything because nobody clicked on it — whatever it was (I couldn’t figure out how to get it to show me what the ad was that it was even showing). But it tried again and got some tiny number of clicks. But it was clear that a lot more fine tuning was required. So I tried the class.

The class was based around long screencasts. I quickly found I couldn’t stand to watch the screencasts at all. But accompanying the screencasts were click-by-click directions for the activities. This I could do, so I set up a handful of experimental ads like they recommended. The results were quite discouraging. I didn’t get any sales (as far as I could tell) and, when I spoke with another author who had taken a similar (but more advanced class), he indicated that you needed to get orders of magnitude larger responses in order actually see appreciable sales. And he had decided it wasn’t worth it.

Several people said that Facebook ads were a better fit, so I decided to hold my nose and give those a try. I truly and wholeheartedly despise Facebook. But I gave them some money to “boost” a post I had already written to promote Better Angels: Tour de Force. The interface was less complicated and it seemed like I got better results. So, after that ad finished, I decided to run another. When I did, however, I discovered how enshittified the Facebook ad system is.

The first ad you buy has reasonable defaults that make sense: it defaults to $14 for a week with a goal of getting people to click on your link. But when you try to do the next one, it dicks with the defaults. It tries to get you to spend $42 or $56 or some much larger amount. And it defaults to other weird goals like “get more engagement” or “get more messages via Facebook Messenger”. And it tries to get you link Instagram and What’s App accounts with your Facebook account. Ugh. I feel so unclean.

Since I’ve been playing around with my book promotion posts already, I will probably continue to purchase ads at some low level. Since it does seem to actually put my ad in front of people who do, at some level, click through to the book page. And maybe some of them actually buy a book. If nothing else, it gives me some additional metrics on which book promotion posts are more effective.

It still feels a lot like just rolling the dice.