Archive for the 'Social issues' category

My department and a MOOC.

The Philosophy Department at San José State University (of which I am a part) took a pass on teaching Michael Sandel's "Justice", a MOOC licensed by the start-up edX, as a "flipped" course (which would have involved students watching videos of Sandel's lectures -- including his Q&A with his Harvard students -- and then coming in to discuss that in a classroom).

We explain our reasons for this decision in an open letter which you can read online at the Chronicle of Higher Education or download as a PDF here. The CHE article about the letter has some comments from the SJSU administration about the situation.

11 responses so far

I don't know and I don't care: ignorance, apathy, and reactions to exposure of bad behavior.

I've already shared some thoughts (here and here) on the Adria Richards/PyCon jokers case, and have gotten the sense that a lot of people want to have a detailed conversation about naming-and-shaming (or calling attention to a problematic behavior in the hopes that it will be addressed -- the lack of a rhyme obviously makes this more careful description of what I have in mind less catchy) as a tactic.

In this post, I want to consider how ignorance or apathy might influence how we (as individuals or communities) evaluate an instance of someone calling public attention to a microaggression like a particular instance of sexual joking in a professional environment.

It has become quite clear in discussions of Adria Richards and the PyCon jokers that, for any particular joke X, there are people who will disagree about whether it is a sexual joke. (Note that in the actual circumstances, there was agreement between Adria Richards, the PyCon jokers, and the PyCon staff that the jokes in question were inappropriate -- and also significant, if not total, agreement from "mr-hank," who claims to be the PyCon joker who was fired, that some of the jokes in question were sexual.) Let's posit, for the purposes of this discussion, a case where there is no disagreement that the joking in question is sexual.

So, you're with others in a work environment (like audience seating for a presentation at a professional conference). You are in earshot of a sexual joke -- maybe as part of the intended audience of the joke teller, maybe not, but certainly close enough that the joke teller has a reasonable expectation that you may hear the joke correctly (which you do). Do you call the attention of the community to the sexual joking and the people engaging in it?

One reason to point out the microaggression is to address ignorance.

The people engaged in the sexual joking may not realize that they are doing something inappropriate in a professional environment. This lack of knowledge may require a serious commitment -- for example, not to read conference codes of conduct, not to absorb any workplace anti-harassment training -- but I suppose it's not impossible. So, pointing out to individual jokers, "Dude, that's inappropriate!" might reduce the ignorance of those individuals. It might also reduce the ignorance of the silent bystanders also in earshot of the sexual joking.

Drawing attention of the larger community to the particular instance of sexual joking may help dispel the ignorance of that larger community (and of its individual members, including those not in earshot of the joking), establishing the existence of such microaggressions within the community. If members of the community make a habit of pointing out each such microaggression they observe, it can also help the community and its members get good information about the frequency of behavior like sexual joking within the professional environment of the community.

Pointing out the microaggression, in other words, can help the community to know that microaggressions are happening, how frequently they're happening, and who is committing them. The hope is that having good knowledge here is more likely to lead to an effective response to the problem than ignorance would be.

There are other dimensions of ignorance you might want to address -- for example, whether people within the community experience discomfort or harm because of such microaggressions, or what empirical studies show about whether sexual joking in the workplace is harmful regardless of whether members of the community report that they enjoy such joking. Still, the thought here is that identifying facts is the key to fixing the problem.

However, you might not think that ignorance is the problem.

It might be the case that the people telling the sexual jokes are fully aware that sexual joking is inappropriate in a professional environment -- that what they're doing is wrong.

It might be the case that the larger community is fully aware of the existence of microaggressions like sexual joking in their professional environments -- and even fully aware of the frequency of these microaggressions.

In these circumstances, where ignorance is not the problem, is there any good reason to point out the microaggression?

Here, the relevant problem would seem to be apathy.

If the community and its members have good information about the existence of microaggressions like sexual joking in their professional environments, good information about the frequency of such microaggressions, even good information about which of its members are committing these microaggressions and still cannot manage to address the problem of eliminating or at least reducing the microaggressions, you might be pessimistic about the value of pointing out another instance when it happens. Reluctance to use good information as the basis for action suggests that the community doesn't actually care about the well-being of the members of the community who are most hurt by the microaggressions, or doesn't care enough about the harm caused by the microaggressions to put the effort in to doing something about them.

(Those silent bystanders also in earshot of the microaggressions? If they aren't ignorant about what's happening, its inappropriateness, and the harms it can do, they are letting it happen without making any effort to intervene. That's apathy in action.)

But perhaps it is possible, at least some of the time, to shake a community out of its apathy.

Sometimes bringing a microaggression to the community's attention is a way to remind the community that it is not living up to its professed values, or that it is allowing some of its members to be harmed because it won't ask other members to take a bit more effort not to harm them.

Sometimes reporting the microaggressions forces members of a community to reconcile what they say they are committed to with how they actually behave.

Sometimes exposing microaggressions to the view of those outside the community brings external pressure upon the community to reconcile its walk with its talk.

It's looking to me like calling attention to a microaggression -- sometimes attention of individuals committing it, sometimes attention of the community as a whole, sometimes the attention of those outside the community who might put pressure on the community and its members -- has promise as a tactic to dispel ignorance, or apathy, or both.

In the case that microaggressions are recognized as actually harmful, what's the positive argument against exposing them?

15 responses so far

Naming, shaming, victim-blaming: thoughts on Adria Richards and PyCon.

By now many of you will have heard the news about Adria Richards attending PyCon, notifying the conference staff about attendees behind her telling jokes during a conference presentation (about, among other things, making the coding community more welcoming for women and girls). Richards felt the jokes were sexualized enough to harm the environment of the conference. PyCon had a Code of Conduct for the conference that encompassed this kind of issue. In a room with hundreds of attendees, in a context where she hoped this harm to the conference community would be dealt with rather than let go (which gives it tacit approval) but where she also didn't want to disrupt the presentations underway, Richards took a picture of the men telling the sexualized jokes and tweeted it with the conference hashtag to get the conference staff to deal with the situation.

The conference staff addressed the issue with the men telling the jokes. Subsequently, one of them was fired by his employer, although it's in no way clear that he was fired on account of this incident (or even if this incident had anything to do with the firing); Adria Richards started receiving an avalanche of threats (death threats, rape threats, we-know-where-you-live threats, you-should-kill-yourself threats); Adria Richards' employer fired her; and PyCon started tweaking its Code of Conduct (although as far as I can tell, the tweaking may still be ongoing) to explicitly identify "public shaming" as harmful to the PyCon community and thus not allowed.

So, as you might imagine, I have some thoughts on this situation.

My big-picture thoughts on naming and shaming are posted at my other blog. This post focuses on issues more specific to this particular incident. In no particular order:

1. There is NOTHING a person could do that deserves to be met with death threats, rape threats, or encouragement to kill oneself -- not even issuing death threats, rape threats, or encouragement to kill oneself. Let's not even pretend that there are circumstances that could mitigate such threats. The worst person you know doesn't deserve such threats. Making such threats is a horrible thing to do.

2. People disagree about whether the joking Adria Richards identified as running afoul of the PyCon Code of Conduct was actually sexual/sexist/inappropriate/creating a climate that could be hostile or unwelcoming to women. (A person claiming to be the joker who was subsequently fired seems to be ambivalent himself about the appropriateness of the joking he was doing.) But it's worth remembering that you are a good authority on what kind of conduct makes you feel uncomfortable or unwelcome; you are not automatically a good authority on what makes others feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. If you're a social scientist who has mounted a careful empirical study of the matter, or if you're up on the literature describing the research that has been done on what makes people comfortable or uncomfortable in different environments, maybe you have something useful to add to the conversation. In the absence of a careful empirical study, however, it's probably a good idea to listen to people when they explain what makes them feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, rather than trying to argue that they don't actually feel that way, or that they're wrong to feel that way.

In other words, that certain jokes would not have been a big deal to you doesn't mean that they could not have had a significant negative impact on others -- including others you take to be members of your community who, at least officially, matter as much as you do.

3. So, if Adria Richards was bothered by the joking, if she thought it was doing harm and needed to be nipped in the bud, why couldn't she have turned around and politely asked the men doing the joking to knock it off? This question assumes that asking nicely is a reliably effective strategy. If this is your default assumption, please [I just noticed myself typing it as a polite request, which says something about my socialization as a female human, so I'm going to let it stand] cast your eyes upon the #Iaskedpolitely hashtag and this post (including the comments) to get some insight about how experience has informed us that asking politely is a pretty unreliable strategy. Sometimes it works; sometimes, buying a lottery ticket wins you some money. On a good day, politely asking to be treated fairly (or to be recognized as a full human being) may just get you ignored. On a not as good day, it gets you called a bitch, followed for blocks by people who want to make you feel physically threatened, or much, much worse.

Recognize that the response that you expect will automatically follow from politely asking someone to stop engaging in a particular behavior may not be the response other people have gotten when they have tried the approach you take as obviously one that would work.

Recognize that, especially if you're a man, you may not know the lived history women are using to update their Bayesian priors. Maybe also recognize, following up on #2 above, that you may not know that lived history on account of having told women who might otherwise have shared it with you that they were wrong to feel the way they told you they felt about particular situations, or that they couldn't possibly feel that way because you never felt that way in analogous situations. In other words, you may have gappy information because of how your past behavior has influenced how the women you know update their priors about you.

I try to recognize that, as a white woman, I probably don't really grasp the history that Adria Richards (as a woman of color) has used to update her priors, either. I imagine the societal pressure not to be an "uppity woman" falls with much, much more force on an African American woman. Your data points matter as you plot effective strategies with which to try to get things done.

3.5. An aside: About a month ago, my elder offspring was parked in front of her laptop, headset on, engaged in an online multiplayer game of some sort. As the game was underway, one of the other players, someone with whom she had no acquaintance before this particular gaming session, put something pornographic on the screen. Promptly, she said into her headset mic, "Hey, that's not cool. Take the porn down. We're not doing that." And lo, the other player took the pornographic image off the screen.

I was pretty impressed that my 13-year-old daughter was so matter-of-fact in establishing boundaries with online gamers she had just met.

I thought about this in the context of #Iaskedpolitely. Then I realized that I maybe didn't have all the relevant information, so today I asked.

Me: That time you were online gaming and you told the other player to take down the porn? Is it possible the other player didn't know you were a girl?

Her: Not just possible.

My daughter has a gender-neutral username. Her voice is in a low enough register that on the basis of her voice alone you might take her for a 13-year-old boy. This may have something to do with the success of her request to the other player to take the porn off the screen in the game.

Also, she didn't bother with the word "please".

In the three-dimensional world, where it's less likely she'll be assumed to be male, her experiences to date have not departed nearly as much from what you can find in #Iaskedpolitely as a mother would like them to.

4. Some of the responses to the Adria Richards story have been along the lines of "A convention or professional conference or trade show is totally not the same thing as a workplace, and it's a Bad Thing that organizers are trying to impose professional-environment expectations on attendees, who want to hang out with their friends and have fun." I'll allow that even a professional conference is different from work (unless, I guess, your entire job is to coordinate or do stuff at professional conferences), but in many cases such a conference or convention or trade show is also still connected to work. One of the big connections is usually the community of people with which you interact at a conference or convention or trade show.

Here's a good operational test: Can you totally opt out of the conferences or conventions or trade shows with no resulting impact on your professional life (including your opportunities for advancement, networking, etc.)? If not, the conferences or conventions or trade shows are connected to your work, and thus it's appropriate to expect some level of professionalism.

None of which is to say that conventions one goes to off the clock, for fun, should necessarily be anarchic events, red in tooth and claw. Unless that's how the community at that particular con decides it wants to have fun, I suppose.

Also, this is not to say that companies should necessarily fire their employees for any and every infraction of a conference Code of Conduct. Depending on what kind of violation (and what kind of ongoing pattern of problematic behavior and failed attempts at remediation an employee might have displayed) firing might be the right call. I have seen none of the personnel files of the persons directly involved in this case -- and you probably haven't, either -- so the best I could do is speculate about whether particular firings were warranted, and if so, by what. I'm in no mood for such speculation.

5. On the matter of tweeting a photo of the PyCon attendees who were telling the jokes Adria Richards felt were inappropriate in the circumstances: Lots of people have decried this as a Very Bad Way for Richards to have communicated to the conference staff about bad-behavior-in-progress with which she felt they should intervene. Instead, they say, she should have had a sense of humor (but see #2 above). Or, she should have turned around and politely asked them to cut it out (but see #3 above). Or, that she should have done something else. (Email conference staff and hope someone was monitoring the inbox closely enough to get promptly to the location ten rows back from the stage so that Richards could point the jokers out in a room with hundreds of people? Use a Jedi mind trick to get them to stop quietly?)

She alerted the conference staff to the problem via Twitter. She made the call, given the available options, the fact that she didn't want to generate noise that would disrupt what was happening on the stage, and probably her judgments of what was likely to be effective based on her prior experiences (see #2 above).

Maybe that's not the call you'd make. Maybe the strategy you would have tried would totally have worked. I trust you're prepared to deploy it next time you're at a conference or convention or trade show and in earshot of someone behaving in a way likely to make members of the community feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. I hope it's just as effective as you imagine it will be.

Even if Adria Richards was wrong to tweet the picture of the jokers, that doesn't mean that their joking was appropriate in the circumstances in which they were doing it at PyCon. It wouldn't mean that the conference staff would be wrong to investigate the joking and shut it down (and deal with the jokers accordingly) if they judged it in violation of the Code of Conduct.

Also, one of the big complaints I've seen about the tweeted photo of the PyCon jokers is that using Twitter as a tool to report the problem removes the confidentiality that ought to accompany allegations of violations of the Code of Conduct, investigations of those allegations, penalties visited on violators, etc.

There's a couple things I want to say to that. First, dealing with bad behavior "privately" (rather than transparently) doesn't always inspire confidence in the community that the bad behavior is being taken seriously, or that it's being addressed consistently (as opposed to, say, being addressed except when someone we really like does it too), or that it's being addressed at all. Especially when the bad behavior in question is happening in a publicly observable way, taking the response completely private may be nearly as harmful to the community as the bad behavior itself.

Second, shouldn't the people who want us to trust that the PyCon staff would have dealt with the PyCon jokers fairly and appropriately in private themselves trust that the PyCon staff had addressed any violation of the conference Code of Conduct Adria Richards might have committed by tweeting the picture of the PyCon jokers (rather than emailing it or whatever) -- and that they'd dealt with such a violation on Richards' part, if they judged it a violation, in private?

There's just a whiff of a double standard in this.

6. On the post-conference update to the PyCon Code of Conduct to to explicitly identify "public shaming" as harmful to the PyCon community and thus not allowed: I'm hopeful that PyCon organizers take account of the effects on the community they have (and on the community they are trying to build) of opacity in dealing with bad behavior versus transparency in dealing with bad behavior.

It's not like there isn't already reason to believe that sometimes conference organizers minimize the impact of instances of harassment reported to them, or deny that any harassment has been reported at all, or back off from applying their own explicit rules to people they judge as valuable to the community.

These kinds of actions may harm their community just as much as public shaming. They communicate that some harassers are more valuable to the community than the people they harass (so maybe a bit of harassment is OK), or that people are lying about their actual experiences of bad behavior.

7. There has been the predictable dissection of Adria Richards' every blog post, tweet, and professional utterance prior to this event, with the apparent intention of demonstrating that she has engaged in jokes about sex organs herself, or that she has a history of looking for things to get mad about, or she's just mean, and who is she to be calling other people out for bad behavior?

This has to be the least persuasive tu quoque I've seen all year.

If identifying problematic behavior in a community is something that can only be done by perfect people -- people who have never sinned themselves, who have never pissed anyone off, who emerged from the womb incapable of engaging in bad behavior themselves -- then we are screwed.

People mess up. The hope is that by calling attention to the bad behavior, and to the harm it does, we can help each other do better. Focusing on problematic behavior (especially if that behavior is ongoing and needs to be addressed to stop the harm) needn't brand the bad actor as irredeemable, and it shouldn't require that there's a saint on duty to file the complaint.

8. Some people have opined that it was bad for Adria Richards to call out the PyCon jokers (or to call them out in the particular way she did) on account of the bad consequences that might befall them if they were known to have violated the PyCon Code of Conduct. But the maxim, "Don't call out bad behavior because doing so could have negative consequences for the person behaving badly" just serves to protect the bad behavior and the bad actors. Being caught plagiarizing can be harmful to a scientist's career, so for heaven's sake don't report it! Being convicted of rape can end your future as a football player, so your victim ought to refrain from reporting it, and the authorities ought to make sure you're not prosecuted!

Bad behavior has bad consequences, too.

The potential bad consequences of being caught behaving badly should, perhaps, help motivate people not to behave badly, especially in cases where the harms of that bad behavior to individuals or the community are not themselves sufficiently motivating to prevent the behavior.

9. Finally, some people have been expressing that it makes them feel uncomfortable and unwelcome when they are not allowed to act they way they want to, tell the jokes they feel like telling, and so forth.

I don't doubt this for a minute.

However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. In the end, it comes down to a question of who you want in your community and who you want out of it. Personally, I don't want my professional communities to be comfortable places for racists or sexists, for rapists, plagiarists, or jerks. Other people, I imagine, would prefer a professional community that's a comfortable place for racists or sexists, for rapists, plagiarists, or jerks to a professional community that's a comfortable place for me.

But here's the thing: if you say you want your community to be welcoming to and inclusive of people who aren't yet represented in great numbers, it might require really listening to what they say about what's holding them back. It might require making changes on account of what they tell you.

It's still possible that you'll decide in the end to prioritize the comfort of the people already in your community over the comfort of the people you thought you wanted to welcome into your community. But in that case, at least have the decency to be honest that this is what you're doing.

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Also, pretty much everything Stephanie says here.

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UPDATE: So, there are people who seem very eager to share their take on this situation (especially, for some odd reason, their autopsies of every wrong thing Adria Richards did) in the comments, but without engaging with anything I've written in the 3000 words here -- including the things I've written here that directly address the points they're trying to make.

There are many, many places on the internet where these not-really-engaging-with-the-conversation-we're-having-here contributions would be welcome. But it's probably worth updating some prior probabilities about whether those comments will make it out of moderation here.

74 responses so far

Pursuing your goals in a world with other people.

Apropos of the discussion here, I offer some general thoughts on pursuing partner, career, family, or other aims one deems important:

  1. Knowing what you want can be handy. Among other things, it can help you identify when you've found it. If you have no idea what you want, recognizing it when you have it can be harder.
  2. On the other hand, being able to specify exactly what you want is not a guarantee that you can or will attain it. It could be, for example, that your desired simultaneous combination of partner-career-family-other aims does not exist.
  3. Hypothetical people that meet all our desiderata may be easier to get along with in our imagination than are actual flesh-and-blood people who embody those desiderata. Happily, it often turns out that actual flesh-and-blood people who significantly depart from some of the desiderata we set a priori are wonderful to be with.
  4. It's possible that there's something creepy about choosing a life partner on the basis of an a priori list of criteria (as opposed to, say, getting to know hir and deciding zie is a person whose companionship you value), especially if those criteria tend to specify services that imagined life partner will provide in advancing your aims. It kind of sets you up to be a self-serving creep who doesn't care about your partner's needs or aspirations.
  5. If your aims matter to you -- if they're really worth pursuing -- sometimes this requires that you sacrifice other aims.
  6. If you, personally, are unwilling to sacrifice aim X to pursue aim Y, that probably means that, push come to shove, you value aim X more. That's fine -- but it might be a good idea to make your peace with the possibility that you can't have both X and Y.
  7. If you really, really want to pursue aim Y without abandoning your pursuit of aim X, you might have to adjust your expectations about the level of attainment that will be possible. (Depending on values of X and Y here, this might involve ratcheting down career aspirations to something slightly less competitive, lucrative, prestigious, and/or time-consuming, scaling back on the projected number of your progeny, ratcheting down your expectations for a spotless home, what have you.)
  8. On the other hand, if you really, really want to pursue aim Y without abandoning your pursuit of aim X and you therefore make it someone else's job to pick up the slack on one of these two goals, it strikes me that you ought to make damn sure that this someone else (a) values the goal you are asking hir to pursue on your behalf and (b) that zie is not being forced thereby to abandon the pursuit of some other goal that zie values more.
  9. This is a good moment to remember Kant's insight that treating others as mere means to advance your goals rather than recognizing them an setters of their own goals is thoroughly assy behavior.
  10. In some circumstances, the least exploitative way to achieve the goal that matters to you but not so much that you'll sacrifice pursuit of your other goals to attain it is to pay someone else to do it. After all, money can be exchanged for goods and services, which might make it useful to the person whose assistance you are getting in pursuing some of hir goals.
  11. Institutions that stack the deck in favor of some classes of people being expected to sacrifice their own aims in order to accommodate (or actively support) other classes of people in the pursuit of their goals suck big bags of crap.
  12. When you recognize that institutional structures support your pursuit of your goals by limiting the options of others to pursue their goals, it would be a real show of humanity (and of not being an entitled ass) to do what you can to increase the potential for those other people to pursue their goals. It would also be cool to examine the institutional structures that stack the deck and figure out how to start dismantling them. (If you need a self-interested reason to do this, consider that fate may conspire to make you care greatly for the happiness and well-being of someone on the short end of this institutional structural stick.)
  13. In an environment where some people's goals are presumed to matter more than others (because of what class they are in rather than anything to do with the particulars of their goals), or where certain goals are judged in advance to be more appropriate (or "natural") to members of some classes of people, it is hard as hell to identify "freely chosen goals" that are actually free of the influence of various institutional structures. But, people who don't live in vacuums can't set goals that don't assume the persistence of certain features of our background environment.
  14. Sometimes taking your own goals seriously may require imagining -- even working for -- the non-persistence of certain features of our background environment. This may also be required to take seriously the goals and aspirations of other people who matter to you. It doesn't mean changing those features will be easy, but few goals worth pursuing are.

I hope I can be forgiven the Xs and Ys in the discussion here, as I think what's at stake ranges far beyond the traditional work/life balance issues about how to divvy up housework and parenting, whose career advancement to prioritize, et cetera. I think it cuts to the core of treating other people as fully human.

And, for some reason, it seems an awful lot like politicians, policy makers, and pundits are having a harder time with that lately than they should be. It feels like the rest of us have to pick up some of that slack.

4 responses so far

Some things I think are elitist.

Given that some presidential hopefuls think it's elitist for President Obama to support universal access to higher education, and given that I work in higher education, I figured this might be a good time for me to tell you about some things I think are elitist.

It's elitist to decide "college isn't for everyone" -- not that people who choose not to go to college don't deserve guff for that (I agree, they don't), but that the people you've decided are needed to do the manual labor in your society shouldn't go to college, because really, what would be the point?

Perhaps the point is that some of the people who attend to your manual labor needs want to go to college. Maybe they would find immersing themselves in higher education for a while enjoyable, something that feeds their needs as human beings. Just because higher education is not a requirement for workers in a particular kind of job does not mean that it would be "wasted" on those workers. Making the blanket assumption that it would be wasted on them is elitist.

It's also elitist to decide that, even if it's not strictly necessary for a career path, college is a fine way for people of means to spend their time and money, while deciding in the same breath that it's an extravagance for people without lots of disposable income to partake of it. This attitude casts higher education as a commodity that only the wealthy deserve. It's the same attitude that scolds college students for accumulating lots of student debt studying "useless" subjects with which they will not be able to secure big salaries upon graduation and swiftly pay off their student loans. It's the same attitude that motivates tax payers to lean on lawmakers in their states to get rid of "frivolous" subjects in state university curricula (usually humanities, but pure sciences -- and really, much of what isn't business or engineering -- regularly make these lists of curricular frivolity), the better to turn publicly supported higher education into no-frills trade schools.

Indeed, I don't know how it isn't elitist to decide for loads of other people you don't even know (let alone for people you do know) what it's worth their time to study. I have no problem if you decide that you don't want to explore Latin American philosophy, or German literature, or interior design, or forensic chemistry, but once you tell someone else that she shouldn't? You're deciding that you know what's best for her with no clear basis for this judgment beyond your commitment that people like her don't need to study [X] (and thus shouldn't).

And the cherry on top of the elitist sundae is for anyone -- professors, politicians, parents, whoever -- to decide that it's appropriate to remake someone else in your image. No other human being, child or grown-up, is a lump of Play-Doh whose role is to take your impression. Treating others primarily as fodder for your attempts at self-replication is deeply disrespectful and elitist in that it singles out certain people as appropriate impression-makers and everyone else as an appropriate impression-taker.

My job as a liberal arts college professor is to give my students the tools to set their own paths in life (to the extent one can in a world in which we share space and other resources with other people, and have to pay rent, and such). I'm not going to tell them who to be. I don't want to tell them who to be. I want to help them find the space, and to have the freedom, to figure out who they want to be, and then to set about being that person. And, I believe that all of my students (and all of the humans who are not my students) are entitled to this without regard to socioeconomic class.

If that's what's passing for "elitist" these days, then I'm going to need a new dictionary to keep up.

3 responses so far

Is it time to go Lysistrata?

In the ancient (written circa 411 BCE) Greek comedy Lysistrata, the character of the title attempts to end the Peloponnesian War by getting the women of Greece to leverage what power they have to influence the men in charge of that society. These women agree that until the war is over, there will be no sex.*

It strikes me that in the year 2012 we are seeing in the U.S. a political war waged against women's personhood and bodily autonomy.** As part of this war, lawmakers have required women to endure waiting periods (in the span of days) to obtain a legal medical procedure which becomes progressively less safe the longer it is delayed. As part of this war, lawmakers will require that women who seek a legal medical procedure be subjected to a medically unnecessary procedure that, when conducted without consent, amounts to rape. As part of this war, other lawmakers are seeking to remove the legal right to this medical procedure altogether (and to treat doctors who perform it as criminals). The warriors rolling back bodily autonomy elide termination of pregnancy with prevention of pregnancy, and frame as a matter of religious freedom the desire of members of certain religions to restrict the bodily autonomy of people who do not even adhere to those religions.

This is a war in which, in the year 2012, the very availability of contraceptives (which, by the way, have reasonable medical uses besides preventing pregnancy) is now up for grabs.

I don't know about you, but my plans for 2012 ran more to jet-packs than The Handmaid's Tale. And I'm starting to wonder if it might not be time to go Lysistrata to end this damn war.

You see, the fact that in the U.S. women make up more than half of the voting age population doesn't mean that women make up a proportional share of elected lawmakers (or judges, or presidents of the United States). And members of the U.S. House of Representatives apparently think it's just fine to convene hearings on contraception coverage featuring 10 expert witnesses, eight of whom are male, and none of whom testify in support of contraceptive coverage. And politicians from the party that's supposedly carrying the progressive banner think it's politically smart to use our bodily autonomy as a bargaining chip -- to get stuff that's more important, apparently.

What's more important to you than autonomy over your own body? If you can make a list here, I'm guessing it's not very long.

What if we declared a sex-strike until the people who purport to represent us came around to the view that our personhood and bodily autonomy is non-negotiable?

Sure, such an action is unlikely to reach the forced-birth theocratic extremists, since they are pretty open in their view that women are lesser creatures, not to be trusted with decisions about their own health or lives.*** My guess is that these people do not care terribly about the wishes of women with whom they are partnered**** (or, if they do, that they regard these women as exceptional compared to the women against whom they seek to use governmental power). Persuading these extremists of my personhood would be about as rewarding trying to have a dialogue with a hexagon, and significantly less likely to succeed.

But maybe a sex-strike would grab the attention of our fair-weather feminist allies, the ones who pay all kinds of lip service to our personhood and bodily autonomy when there's an election to win, then turn on their heels and start bargaining it away for their own political advantage.

These folks might change their ways if they had skin in the game -- or, as they case might be, if they got no skin and no game.

Far be it from me to suggest that men are more vulnerable to their desire for funsexytime than are women. They are not. However, I reckon it's easier to be in the mood for funsexytime when your very personhood is not up for debate.

I find legislative threats to my bodily autonomy a real mood-killer. And, I'd much rather share funsexytime with a partner who takes my well-being seriously enough to view the war on woman as a war that needs to be stopped in its tracks, now. Someone who wouldn't see it as politically expedient, let alone clever.

Because guess what? I would never presume I was entitled to funsexytime with someone whose personhood and bodily autonomy I didn't step up to fight for when it was under threat. Heck, I would step up to fight for the personhood and bodily autonomy even of people with whom I have no desire to have funsexytime because that's what decent human beings do.

And my choice is to refrain from funsexytime with anyone to whom my interests do not matter at least that much. People who cannot manage to see me and others like me as fully human do not deserve to get any action that might not also result in a repetitive stress injury.

Not being all-in in the fight to protect the bodily autonomy and personhood of women and others with uteri is a deal-breaker for me. Is it a deal-breaker for you?

*Including no "Lioness on The Cheese Grater," a sex position upon which we can only hope SciCurious will one day blog.

**This is also a war against the bodily autonomy of other persons with uteri.

***And yet, to be entrusted with babies that they may not want. If ever there was a non-standard logic ...

****This does raise the question for me of how men of this sort can have sex with women who they view as not-fully-human by virtue of the very fact that they are women. Wouldn't such sexual congress amount to bestiality, the next step on the slippery slope after gay marriage, which they are generally against?

11 responses so far

When the mainstream is extreme: research on sexism in lads' mags.

You may have seen the discussion various places (like here) about the recent research that indicates the descriptions of women given by convicted sex offenders and lads' mags are well nigh indistinguishable. The research paper went up today on the British Journal of Psychology website. But, thanks to one of the authors of the paper (Dr. Peter Hegarty, with whom I shared a class in grad school), I got my hands on a pre-print, which I discuss in this post.

Horvath, M.A.H., Hegarty, P., Tyler, S. & Mansfield, S., " 'Lights on at the end of the party': Are lads' mags mainstreaming dangerous sexism?" British Journal of Psychology. DOI:10.1111/j.2044-8295.2011.02086.x

The general question prompting the study is what kind of influence is exerted by magazine contents on how young people perceive their social reality. In particular, how might magazines influence how young people approach sex?

The authors cite previous studies about the influences of exposure to pornography and other sexualized media on the attitudes young men have about women, but note that the effects of "lads' mags" (i.e., magazines aimed at young male readers like FHM, Maxim, and Stuff) had not been studied.

And, while "if taken at face value, lads' mags appear likely to teach young men sexist attitudes and practices," the authors note that editors' of these magazines argue against taking them at face value.

For example, Martin Daubney, the former editor of popular UK lads' mag Loaded dismissed the possibility that magazines do or should educate young people about sex. Sexist content in lads' mags is often characterized as merely 'ironic' (Benwell, 2003; McKay, Mikosza, & Hutchins, 2005) allowing editors to negate the possibility that their magazines influence readers, and to counter-argue that their critics have simply missed the intended joke (Jackson, Stevenson, & Brooks, 2001).

A reasonable question here is whether the readers on the lads' mags are taking their contents as ironic -- whether they are in on the joke that the critics are missing. However, even if they understand the articles and advice as humorous rather than serious, Horvath et al. mention that there may still be effects on the reader that are worth exploring:

Sexist humour may be interpreted as harmless irony by some men and not by others. For example, men who are more sexist find sexist jokes funnier (Eyssel & Bohner, 2007) and disparaging humour about women creates a context in which the expression of sexism becomes the social norm (Ford & Ferguson, 2004; Romero-S´anchez, Dur´an, Carretero-Dios, Megias, & Moya, 2010). For these reasons, editors’ claims about the social consequences of the content of lads’ mags ought not themselves to be taken at face value.

The overarching question posed by this research, then, was "whether lads’ mags may affect readers’ norms, making extreme forms of sexism appear more acceptable to them."

The press coverage in advance of the publication of the paper focused on one piece of the study methodology -- the comparison of statements about women taken from lads' mags with statements about women taken from interviews with convicted rapists. Potentially, this detail might suggest that the researchers were studying whether lads' mags cause readers to become rapists, or whether the lads' magazines are the primary source of attitudes young men have about women or sex. Neither of these is an accurate description of the hypothesis the Horvath et al. research was testing.

Why the research drew on the statements from the rapists is that these might be taken as a plausible extreme as far as views men articulate about women. If they really do represent an extreme, then they should exist in a separate category from views lads' mags articulate about women -- or, perhaps, in instances where lads' mags present views that on their face resemble statements made by rapists, the lads' mags might present them in a way that clearly signals that they are intended ironically rather than literally.

Of course, Horvath et al. mention, there is research that suggests rapists have learned to make their own views seem less extreme:

For example, rapists learn a culturally derived vocabulary of motive that diminishes their responsibility, and normalizes their behaviour. Rapists blame women for their own victimization by describing women as seductresses, by claiming that ‘no’ means ‘yes’, by arguing that most women eventually ‘relax and enjoy it’ and by insisting that nice girls do not get raped (Scully & Marolla, 1984). As men who have mastered this vocabulary of diminished responsibility, convicted rapists have much to tell us about how sexual violence becomes possible and how it gets normalized (Scully, 1990). In other words, it appears that lads’ mags and rapists might share the commonality of using techniques to neutralize derogatory sexism.

A key difference, though, is that it's less socially acceptable to look to a convicted rapist for advice about women and sexuality than to look to a lads' mag for such advice. So, if lads' mags actually were to have the effect of normalizing the kinds of views of women that rapists express -- of making them seem like part of reasonable dating advice to young men -- that might be useful to know. And, indeed, that's what Horvath et al. set out to discover.

What exactly is at stake in normalizing a particular set of views is itself a contentious issue, so in our discussion of this research it's worth acknowledging some logical possibilities: Possibly having a particular set of attitudes towards women -- even sexist attitudes towards women -- is completely independent from acting on those attitudes, for example by committing rape. Possibly having a particular set of sexist attitudes towards women might not create any harms for the women with whom one shares a society. Possibly expressing a particular set of sexist attitudes towards women might not create any harms for the women with whom one shares a society.

I am not a psychologist, but I reckon there is a body of research that explores the connections between attitudes, actions, and downstream harms of various sorts. Moreover, I reckon that Horvath et al. are fairly well versed in what that body of research has shown. However, it is important to be clear that they are not making claims here that men in their study who identify strongly with the sexist attitudes voiced by convicted rapists (or by lads' mags) will themselves commit rapes, nor even act on that identification in any particular way. What exactly we can expect downstream from the normalization of a particular set of attitudes about women, in other words, is a question not directly addressed by this research.

Let's look at the two connected studies in the reported research to see what questions this paper does address.

Study 1: Does attributing derogatory sexist comments to lads' mags make it easier for young men to identify with them?

The researchers hypothesized that the men who were the subjects of this study would identify more strongly with quotes that were labeled as coming from lads' mags than with quotes that were labeled as coming from interviews with convicted rapists. They also hypothesized that more sexist men would identify more strongly with the quotes from both sources than would less sexist men.

The researchers administered questionnaires to a sample of 92 men (between 18 and 46 years of age, with average age just under 23 years old) recruited at a university in the UK. The study participants got to complete the questionnaire in private and submit it to a locked box before debriefing. The researcher with whom they met before filling out the questionnaire was female; one wonders what kind of effect, if any, this had on how subjects completed the questionnaires.

All the questionnaires had some shared sections: the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory (ASI, Glick & Fiske, 1996), which is a measure of both "hostile" and "benevolent" sexist beliefs about women, and the Acceptance of Modern Myths about Sexual Aggression Scale (AMMSA, Gerger, Kley, Bohner, & Siebler, 2007). For both of these, subjects indicated agreement or disagreement with items on a Likert scale. Horvath et al. also included a four-item measure of the Perceived Legitimacy of Lads’ Mags (designed specifically for this study), which had participants indicate agreement (on a scale of 0 to 5) with the following items:

Lads' mags are a positive way of learning about sexual relationships.
Reading lads' mags is something every young male should do.
Lads' mags have provided me with accurate and informative information about the opposite sex.
Lads' mags educate young men accurately on society’s gender roles.

However, the first section of the questionnaire came in one of three different versions. Each of these versions included eight short quotes from editorials and articles from four lads' mags with high circulations in the UK and eight short quotes from verbatim transcripts of interviews with convicted rapists. For these sixteen quotes, subjects were asked to indicate (on a scale of 1 to 7) how much they identified with the quote (from do not identify at all to identify strongly). In one version of the questionnaire, the sources of each of the quotes were correctly attributed (i.e., quotes from lads' mags were labeled as being from lads' mags, quotes from convicted rapists were labeled as being from convicted rapists). In the second version of the questionnaire, the attributions were switched (i.e., quotes from lads' mags were labeled as being from convicted rapists, quotes from convicted rapists were labeled as being from lads' mags). In the third version of the questionnaire, the quotes were presented on their own with no attribution of their sources.

In case you're curious, here's the table from the paper with the quotes:

Table 1. Quotes sourced from lads’ mags and from convicted rapists used as stimuli in Studies 1 and 2

Quotes sourced from convicted rapists
1 There’s a certain way you can tell that a girl wants to have sex . . . The way they dress, they flaunt themselves.
2 Some girls walk around in short-shorts . . . showing their body off . . . It just starts a man thinking that if he gets something like that, what can he do with it? . . .
3 What burns me up sometimes about girls is dick-teasers. They lead a man on and then shut him off right there.
4 You know girls in general are all right. But some of them are bitches . . . The bitches are the type that . . . need to have it stuffed to them hard and heavy.
5 You’ll find most girls will be reluctant about going to bed with somebody or crawling in the back seat of a car . . . But you can usually seduce them, and they’ll do it willingly.
6 Girls ask for it by wearing these mini-skirts and hotpants . . . they’re just displaying their body . . . Whether they realise it or not they’re saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a beautiful body, and it’s yours if you want it.
7 Some women are domineering, but I think it’s more or less the man who should put his foot down. The man is supposed to be the man. If he acts the man, the woman won’t be domineering
8 I think if a law is passed, there should be a dress code . . . When girls dress in those short skirts and things like that, they’re just asking for it.

Quotes sourced from lads’ mags.
1 A girl may like anal sex because it makes her feel incredibly naughty and she likes feeling like a dirty slut. If this is the case, you can try all sorts of humiliating acts to help live out her filthy fantasy.
2 Mascara running down the cheeks means they’ve just been crying, and it was probably your fault . . . but you can cheer up the miserable beauty with a bit of the old in and out.
3 Filthy talk can be such a turn on for a girl . . . no one wants to be shagged by a mouse . . . A few compliments won’t do any harm either . . . ‘I bet you want it from behind you dirty whore’ . . .
4 Escorts . . . they know exactly how to turn a man on. I’ve given up on girlfriends. They don’t know how to satisfy me, but escorts do.
5 There’s nothing quite like a woman standing in the dock accused of murder in a sex game gone wrong . . . The possibility of murder does bring a certain frisson to the bedroom.
6 You do not want to be caught red-handed . . . go and smash her on a park bench. That used to be my trick.
7 Girls love being tied up . . . it gives them the chance to be the helpless victim.
8 I think girls are like plasticine, if you warm them up you can do anything you want with them.

The researchers found that there was a high correlation between identifying with the quotes (from both kinds of sources) and scoring high on the ASI (a measure of sexism), AMMSA (a measure of acceptance of sexual aggression myths), and the Perceived Legitimacy of Lads’ Mags. The overall level of identification was not especially high (averaging just under 3 on a scale of 1 to 7), and how strongly the subjects identified with the quotes overall was not significantly different in the three versions of the questionnaire (with correct attribution, false attribution, or no attribution of the sources of the quotes).

As predicted, no matter what the actual source of quotes, the men in the study identified with them more strongly when they were labeled as coming from lads' mags and less strongly when they were labeled as coming from convicted rapists.

Surprisingly, though, the subjects identified significantly more strongly with the quotes taken from interviews with convicted rapists than they did with the quotes from lads' mags -- and this was the case across all three attribution conditions. In other words, the subjects identified more strongly with quotes from rapists than quotes from lads' mags even when they had correct information about which were which.

So, Study 1 found a correlation between a subject's measured sexism and that subject's identification with both kinds of quotes. It also found that labeling quotes from lads' mags as being from lads' mags increased the level of reported identification with them, while labeling them as being from convicted rapists decreased the level of reported identification. Mislabeling the quotes from rapists as being from lads' mags significantly increased subjects' level of reported identification with them, but the subjects identified more strongly with the quotes from rapists when their source was misattributed, unattributed, or correctly attributed. The researchers find these results

consistent with the possibility that lads’ mags might normalize hostile sexism, because sexism appears more acceptable to young men when lads’ mags appear to be its source. Unexpectedly, the participants also identified more with the rapists’ quotes than the lads’ mags quotes. Jointly these findings suggest the possibility that the legitimation strategies that rapists deploy when they talk about women are more familiar to these young men than we had anticipated.

Horvath et al. point out one possibility for the unexpectedly higher identification with the rapists' quotes, namely that the sample of quotes from the lads' mags were more extreme than those taken from the interviews with the convicted rapists. This might make a certain sort of sense: magazines are competing for eyeballs and being extreme might help with that, while rapists may have an investment in justifying their actions and not coming across as monsters. Still, at the very least this finding undermines the assumption that the view of women presented by lads' mags is less extreme than that voiced by rapists.

Study 2: Can young men and women reliably distinguish the source of descriptions of women from lads' mags and from convicted rapists?

The second study used the same 16 short quotes that appeared on the questionnaires in Study 1, eight from lads' mags and eight from interviews with convicted rapists. Here, each of the quotes appeared on its own laminated card with no information about its source.

The subjects (20 men and 20 women between the ages of 19 and 30, with an average age just above 23) were presented with three sorting tasks using the 16 cards. In the first, they were asked to arrange the 16 quotes in order from most degrading towards women to least degrading towards women. In the second, the task was to sort the cards into two stacks, one containing quotes the subject considered degrading towards women and the other the subjects considered not degrading towards women. For the third sorting task, the subjects were told that some of the quotes came from lads' mags and that some came from interviews with convicted rapists, and they were asked to guess which quotes came from which sources. For this third task, the researchers asked the subjects to explain what it was about the quotes that made them think they came from the source they guessed.

In addition to these sorting tasks, each of the subjects in Study 2 completed the Perceived Legitimacy of Lads' Mags items.

The results of the first sorting task (ranking the quotes in a continuum of how degrading subjects found them to women) were that on average, the quotes from the lads' mags were ranked as more degrading than those from the convicted rapists.

In the second sorting task, the subjects ranked an average of 11.65 of the 16 quotes as derogatory (and an average of 4.35 of them as not derogatory).

And, in the task which asked the subjects to guess whether each quote came from a lads' mag or from an interview with a convicted rapist, on average the subjects identified slightly more of the quotes to rapist than to lads' mags, and the subjects had a hard time correctly identifying the sources of the quotes. About 56% of the time they correctly guessed a quote's source as a lads' mag (which meant they incorrectly guessed it was from a rapist about 44% of the time), and they correctly guessed the source of the quotes from rapists only about 55% of the time. In other words, they distinguished the sources of the quotes at a rate only slightly better than chance.

These results, by the way, showed no correlation with attitudes measured by the Perceived Legitimacy of Lads' Mags items.

The paper includes an interesting discussion of how subjects explained their sorting of the quotes into the ones they thought were from rapists and the ones they thought were from lads' mags:

Many participants drew upon the idea that lads’ mags printed views that fell within the range of what men might ‘normally’ say while those attributed to rapists were too offensive, or too violent to fall within this category. Participants also drew on the ideas that lads’ mags give advice to young men, and are humorous. Others drew upon the ideas that rapists use ‘techniques of neutralization’ to excuse their actions (Gilbert & Webster, 1982), and that rapists lack understanding of how to interpret sexual refusal (Frith, 2009). ... Finally, we aimed to see if participants expressed evaluations of the quotes themselves. While most participants described the quotes negatively or neutrally, explicit agreement with victim-blaming ideas was evident in a few instances (N = 5, e.g., ‘ . . . some girls do lead men on. . . the way they dress all the time, in really short skirts . . . and really really low tops, so what do they expect? They want men to look at them though don’t they?’ Female Participant).

Horvath et al. note that the nature of the sorting tasks the subjects were asked to complete in Study 2 may well have affected how sensitive those subjects were to instances of sexism in the quotes.

The upshot of Study 2 seems to be that despite the subjects' descriptions of lads' mags as "normal, funny, and advice giving, but not too violent or offensive", they could not reliably distinguish quotes from lads' mags from those from convicted rapists, and moreover the subjects ranked the quotes that were actually from lads' mags as more derogatory. Their evaluation of the quotes, in other words, seemed to undermine their theory of lads' mags as closer to the cultural mainstream and of the views of rapists as an extreme fringe.

Overall, what can we conclude from the results of these two studies? The researchers note that the views of women's sexuality articulated by both convicted rapists and lads' mags are similar enough that subjects couldn't reliably discern their source, and that these views were ranked as more derogatory than not. They also note that when a quote was identified as from a lads' mag (no matter what its actual source), subjects were more likely to say that they identified with the view it expressed than if the same quote was identified as coming from a rapist. This in itself is not especially surprising; who wants to sound like a rapist? However, it is a finding that seems at odds with the subjects' own view that "a boundary can be detected between the overlapping discourse of lads’ mags and convicted rapists, such that the former is ‘normal’ and the latter is ‘extreme’."

Here, the researchers double back to the disavowals made by editors of lads' mags, that their contents are ironic and that their readers are in on the joke. They write:

While magazine editors deny their publications are a source of social influence, our studies suggest that the ‘mainstream’ status of such magazines allows them to legitimize views about women that young men might otherwise consider unacceptable. In other words, the status of lads’ mags as legitimate mainstream publications may lend their contents performative force (Butler, 1997) to bring about change in the range of sexist opinions with which young men will identify. People are sometimes threatened when their views overlap with those of groups they dislike (Pool, Wood, & Leck, 1998). Here, young people struggled to correctly attribute the sources of the quotes (Study 2) and young men identified more with the quotes when they were attributed to lads’ mags (Study 1). Jointly, these two findings suggest that sexist talk about women in lads’ mags may be something more than ineffectual harmless ironic fun; these magazines’ very status as ‘mainstream’ publications may afford them the power to normalize very egregious sexist beliefs about women.

The research here suggests that views with which a young man might not identify just on the basis of their content could secure strengthened identification by virtue of appearing in a lads' mag. These magazines, in other words, confer a certain amount of cultural credibility on the views they present. This effect seems even more likely among young people looking to such magazines to educate them about sex, relationships, and appropriate gender roles. And, it seems possible that the presentation of views that are extreme en face in a context that is presumed by its consumers to be mainstream could shift perceptions of what kinds of attitudes are normal.

Who exactly is the audience for the lads' mags? Is it the young men who already have strongly sexist views (as did the subjects in Study 1 who identified most strongly with the quotes extracted from the lads' mags)? If so, this seems to argue against the editors' claims that their articles and editorials are intended to be ironic. The people identifying with the views expressed in the quotes are taking them literally.

If the intended audience is instead young men who are not identifying literally with the quotes -- and if these young men are looking to lads' mags for guidance about how to interact with women -- then how exactly do the pieces from which these quotes were extracted work? Do the articles and editorials actually shift the readers to a stronger identification with the claims? Since such identification is correlated with higher levels of sexism, achieving this kind of shift would undercut the claim that these magazines are offering harmless fun. Or, are there unmistakeable signals in the lads' mags that the views they present of women, as literally expressed, are to be rejected?

At the very least, there is nothing in the quotes taken from the lads' mags in this research that marked them as "ironic" for study participants. This suggests that regardless of authorial intent, it's possibilite that some significant portion of these magazines' readerships don't see them as ironic, either.

7 responses so far

College students face a crummy future: Occupy Wall Street inspires campus activism.

Inside Higher Ed reports that college students across the U.S. have been staging protests in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations:

In true Occupy Wall Street fashion, the campus protesters didn’t have any specific demands. Instead, they spoke out against the general issues that have long plagued students: high debt, rising tuition, the privatization of public education and uneven distribution of wealth.

At the State University of New York at Albany walkout, about half of the 300 or so protesters managed to secure an hour to express their concerns to President George Philip in an open forum in the administration building. He reportedly agreed with some of their qualms, but upset many when he told them, “I’m not giving you back my pension.” The president of the New School, David E. Van Zandt, meanwhile, issued a supportive statement that encouraged students “to devise peaceful, practical solutions to longstanding problems of inequality.”

The article considers how many students at various campuses did (or did not) walk out of classes or turn up for demonstrations, and why that might be (e.g., it's easier to indicate on Facebook that you'll attend an event than it might be actually to attend it -- especially with midterm exams looming). Still, in an age where we old farts tend to shake our heads at student apathy, there seems to be growing a palpable sense of discontent that may bubble into action. From the article:

Lettie Stratton, a St. Lawrence senior, said that regardless of who turned out to protest, many could relate.

“Our overall goal was really just to create a dialogue and get people talking about what matters to them,” Stratton said. “As students, we’re part of the 99 percent," she said, referring to the Occupy Wall Street slogan describing the vast majority of the American population who aren’t super-rich. "Crippled with student loans, we’re already behind before we even have a chance to set foot in the real world.

“I think a big part of this is speaking out against ignorance and realizing that 99 percent can make a change. We also want to make sure that it doesn’t stop today – we want people to keep talking about it. It’s not just like, ‘Oh, the protest is over, so let’s go back to doing nothing.' ”

For those of you who aren't dealing with college students on a daily basis, it is important to recognize the context in which students are raising these objections. These are not the perennial student gripes about not having a plan for what to do after graduation, or not being able to find a job immediately after graduation that feels like a career, if not a calling.

As much as the economy has not been improving for those of us who are not CEOs, it has been even worse for college students.

It's not just that the so-called "job creators" have created precious few jobs, but that employers are now explicitly seeking to hire job applicants who already have jobs. (The logic of this strikes me as of a piece with banks that only want to lend money to people who already have money.) The young people who went to college to prepare themselves to enter the work force are, of course, less likely to already have jobs (since they went to college to acquire the skills and credentials and such to get jobs). In most cases, the jobs they're working while they are students are not the jobs they hope to be working for the rest of their adult lives.

Basically, we have a generation that has been urged to go to college because it was purportedly a reliable route to a middle-class standard of living. No one warned them that the middle class might be squeezed nearly out of existence.

Depending on your views about the point of a college education (here's how I described mine five years ago, in the shadow of the dot-com bust), you might extend special sympathy to the students who opted for the "prudent" route of selecting some practical major that helped them acquired a focused set of skills and credentials that could plug them right in to some existing career path. They might have wanted to major in something less practical, like philosophy or history or English (or even a more theoretical science), but they wanted to know that they'd be employable immediately after graduation.

The lack of even such well-defined jobs must make recent graduates feel pretty cheated.

Well, we older people might reply, at least they (or their liberal arts major compatriots) got the enrichment of a college education, which is something a lot of working stiffs (and unemployed folks) never get. Indeed, you might expect me to say something like this, given my earlier defense of "impractical" majors:

A job is nice. So is political power, a fancy chariot, hangers-on. But you can have all these things and still not be happy or fulfilled. And, if your happiness depends on having such things, you're pretty vulnerable to sudden reversals.

So how can a human find fulfillment that isn't all about having lots of stuff, or a high-paying job, or a top-rated sit-com?

Well, what do you have that's really yours? What is the piece of your life that no one can take away?

You have your mind. You have the ability to think about things, to experience the world, to decide what matters to you and how you want to pursue it. You have your sense of curiousity and wonder when you encounter something new and unexpected, and your sense of satisfaction when you figure something out. You have the power to imagine ways the world could be different. You even have the ability (the responsibility?) to try to make the world different.

This is what I think a college education should give you: lots of hands-on experience using your mind so you know different ways you can think about things and you start to figure out what you care about.

I still think a college education should give you experience using your mind in lots of different ways, and that this does impart skills (although broad ones, not just narrow ones) that can be of use in the workplace as well as in life.

However, I also wrote:

There is always the danger of going overboard with the idea that the life of the mind is the only life that matters, which could be used as an excuse to get people to pipe down about truly horrible material conditions. And, a mind is not invulnerable to certain kinds of threats, whether natural or man-made. Still, I'd rather have a supple mind than a whole bucketful of skills so specialized they might only be useful for another six months.

Now, we have a situation where even the most practical majors cannot count on employment at graduation. We've created an economy where people who have taken all the prudent steps to enter the world of work -- often while assuming significant debt to earn their degrees -- cannot find jobs!

(Even at public universities, student debt is a big deal. When state budgets get tight, student fees go up. Cutting instructional staff means fewer sections of courses students need to graduate -- which means more years in school and more term bills to pay. Plus, more and more of those courses needed to graduate are being shifted outside of the regular academic calendar to summer sessions and winter sessions. These special sessions don't receive the same level of support from the state, so students have to pay a lot more to take the same classes in them -- essentially, privatizing some of the instruction at public universities.)

It strikes me that we, as a society, owe college students and recent college graduates more.

We should want our government, and our society more broadly, to take care of its members (including its youth) at least as well as its banks.

It is reasonable for the youth to want people in government, in the private sector, in the media (hello corporate ownership) to hear their voices, their grievances, and their hopes for the future even if they can't spare thousands of dollars to make campaign donations, or to incorporate.

If Mitt Romney is right that corporations are people, what he didn't mention is that many of them are legal persons that suck -- sucking all the attention of our policy makers, all the best tax benefits, all the reflexive good will of the mainstream media. Meanwhile, what have these legal persons done for young people lately besides jacking up the interest on their student loans and the fees on their debit cards?

Young people are entitled to their anger and frustration, and they are reasonable in recognizing the need to go outside normal channels to get the attention of those with the power to change things. I'm hopeful that this leads them to pursue some concerted action when election time comes around -- to hack our system and start dismantling the structures that currently ensure that no matter which of the two major parties wins, the corporations can keep on keeping on.

So ... where do the faculty stand in all of this? Where should we stand?

I think we need to be committed to delivering the highest quality education we can to our students given the resources we have. (We do have to recognize, though, that with the resources we have right now, we may not be able to deliver the education we think our students deserve without hurting ourselves.)

We need also to be honest with our students about how crummy the economy is, and how dismal their job prospects may be.

Further, we need to do what we can to change the conditions that make the economic future our students face so very dismal. That responsibility doesn't belong solely to the people teaching college students, though -- it belongs to the generations who came before them, especially those who were able to parlay a college education into a middle-class existence.

(We also owe it to people in our society who don't go to college to provide conditions for them to live decent lives ... but at least they're not laboring under the expectation that their education is a ticket to economic stability.)

Some of us have seen already that the folks at the top of the power pyramid will try to play students and faculty off against each other -- to make it look like a forced choice between delivering promised pensions to faculty and raising student fees, for example. We owe it to ourselves and each other to resist this zero-sum-game framing that exempts administrators and corporations from sharing sacrifice in meaningful ways.

Philosophers may have a well-earned reputation for corrupting the youth, but we have no interest in eating our young. We must find a way to go forward and build a society that has room for us all.

* * * * *

If you want to support the younger generations of our society in a tangible way, please consider donating to a project on my DonorsChoose giving page. Even a few dollars can bring a public school classroom closer to providing the kind of engaging math and science education that our kids deserve.

8 responses so far

Equal Pay Day 2011: there is power in a union.

You may have noticed from recent posts on the Scientopia frontpage that today is Equal Pay Day, the day that marks the number of excess days (past December 31, 2010) that an average woman needs to work to catch up to the average man's yearly earnings.

The evidence suggests that women in the U.S. are paid less than men for the same work. For example, this recent story from Inside Higher Education:

The gender gap in faculty pay cannot be explained completely by the long careers of male faculty members, the relative productivity of faculty members, or where male and female faculty members tend to work -- even if those and other factors are part of the picture, according to research being released this week at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association.

When all such factors are accounted for, women earn on average 6.9 percent less than do men in similar situations in higher education, says the paper, by Laura Meyers, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington. The finding could be significant because many colleges have explained gender gaps by pointing out that the senior ranks of the professoriate are still dominated by people who were rising through the ranks in periods of overt sexism and so are lopsidedly male, or that men are more likely than women to teach in certain fields that pay especially well.

(Bold emphasis added.)

I submit to you that paying someone less (or more) for the same job when the only difference is the gender of the person doing the job is unfair. (Those who take issue with this claim are invited to offer a positive argument for paying women less than men for the same work.)

Of course, it strikes me that the public enthusiasm in the U.S. for paying someone a fair wage in the first place is on the decline. It's true that we have the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, but we also have a case before the Supreme Court in which Walmart seems to be arguing that, owing to its size, its women employees ought not to be certified as a class in a class action gender discrimination lawsuit against the retailer. (Maybe the slogan here is "too big for you to make us be fair"?) Indeed, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was prompted by a Supreme Court decision that held that:

employers cannot be sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act over race or gender pay discrimination if the claims are based on decisions made by the employer 180 days ago or more.

In her dissent, read from the bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg set out the precarious position in which this left women who were subject to pay discrimination.

Joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer, she argued against applying the 180-day limit to pay discrimination, because discrimination often occurs in small increments over large periods of time. Furthermore, the pay information of fellow workers is typically confidential and unavailable for comparison. Ginsburg argued that pay discrimination is inherently different from adverse actions, such as termination. Adverse actions are obvious, but small pay discrepancy is often difficult to recognize until more than 180 days of the pay change.

Meanwhile, across the U.S. governors and state legislatures seem to be doing what they can to dismantle labor unions, especially public employee labor unions. I would argue that if you care about fair pair for women, you ought to be concerned about efforts to weaken or eliminate unions.

Let's look at some numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2010 11.9% of the total workforce consisted of union members, with 13.1% of the workforce represented by unions (i.e., they were either union members or working in jobs covered by a union or an employee association contract). Looking at a gender breakdown for 2010 (when the numbers show men making up 51.2% of the workforce and women 48.8%), 12.6% of employed men were union members (with 13.8% of employed men represented by unions) and 11.1% of employed women were union members (with 12.4% of employed women represented by unions).

How much of a difference does this make to salaries? The median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers for 2010 stack up like this: The mean for the whole workforce was $747 overall, but it was $917 for union members, $911 for workers represented by unions, and $717 for non-union workers. The average man in the workforce was earning $824 a week -- $967 if he was a union member, $964 if he was represented by a union, and $789 if he was a non-union worker. Meanwhile, the average woman in the workforce was earning $669 a week -- $856 if she was a union member, $847 if she was represented by a union, and $639 if she was a non-union worker.

First, you'll notice that, in the aggregate, salaries are higher for union members (by 23%) and employees represented by a union (22%), and lower for non-union workers (by 4.0%). But let's take a look at what kind of difference unions make to pay by gender.

In the aggregate, the men's mean weekly earnings were 10% above the mean, the women's 10% below the mean. For non-union workers, the men's mean weekly earnings were 10% above the mean, the women's 11% below the mean. However, among employees represented by unions, men's mean weekly salaries were 5.8% above the mean, women's 7.0% below it, and for union members, men's mean weekly salaries were 5.5% above the mean, women's 6.7% below it.

That's still not pay equality. But workers who are union members or represented by unions have less of a pay gap between men and women.

From the point of view of working our way towards equal pay, unions seem to be doing something to close that gap. This is something to keep in mind when considering the future of unions in the U.S. workforce.

Other Equal Pay Day posts around Scientopia:

WTF?! "Equal" Pay Day
Equal Pay Day
$16,819 for a Penis
Penis Parity Day
Good Hair Day, Fair Pay Day
Equal Pay Day Epic FAIL

6 responses so far

The #scimom project: We are here!

This post is a contribution to the #scimom blog project, which its originator David Wescott describes as follows:

Online moms have extraordinary power – far more than most people realize. Companies listen to them. Policy makers listen to them. Moms make the overwhelming majority of decisions in life – what to buy, who to vote for, when to get health care, and so on. They do most of the work. They do most of the child-rearing. They're the boss. The problem is a lot of online moms feel labeled, disrespected, and misunderstood.

Science bloggers push the boundaries of ideas. They give us facts, and theories, and great stories about discovery. They celebrate the pursuit of knowledge and help us understand all kinds of important things. The problem is a lot of science bloggers also feel labeled, disrespected, and misunderstood.

I think if moms are making decisions based on the right information and with the right context – the kind of context you can get from science bloggers – the world will be a much better place. And I think if science bloggers understand the perspectives of the REAL influential people in our society, they can help make sure their work has an even bigger impact than it already does.

Of course I know there are plenty of people who are scientists AND moms. But even those mom/science bloggers tend to stick to one community or the other. In my observations over a few years now, these two online communities remain fairly isolated from each other. So I've been working on an idea to get the two communities talking. Here it is, plain and simple.

1) if you're a mom blogger, write a post this month that has something to do about science or science blogging. It could be anything -your love (or hatred) of science or a particular scientist, a hope you have for your child, an appropriate role model, whatever you like. Just make it personal and relevant to your life.

2) if you're a science blogger, write a post this month that has something to do with parenting or parent blogging. Maybe it's something your parent did to get you interested in science. Maybe it's on the science of parenting. Maybe it's your love (or skepticism) of something in the mom-o-sphere. Just make it personal and relevant to your life.

3) if you're a mom AND a scientist, then just write a post this month about how awesome it is to be a mom and a scientist or something like that. Maybe suggest a role model, or a story about why both roles are important to you. Just make it personal and relevant to your life. As far as I'm concerned you make an awesome role model and people should know about you.

4) ask another blogger in your online community to participate. You can call them out in your post like it's a blog meme or you can ask them any way you like.

5) tag your post #scimom and I will keep track of the posts and link to them at Science for Citizens and here as well. If you want to tweet a link to your post, just add the hashtag #sci-mom and we'll keep a tally so people can find relevant posts to read.

6) read a post from a blogger in the OTHER community (i.e. if you're a mom blogger read a participating science blogger's post and vice versa) and leave a comment.

I can remember the moment that I realized there was a presumptive rift between science bloggers and mommy bloggers. It was at ScienceOnline 2010, during an Ignite talk in which some dude was carrying on about how powerful (yet how sadly ill-informed about science) mommy bloggers were as a group.

I believe it was Dr. Isis, who was also in attendance for this jaw-dropping proclamation, who let fly the first profanity (sotto voce, of course -- do not doubt that Dr. Isis has manners). But I had a profanity of my own at the ready, for verily, eye contact with the domestic and laboratory goddess confirmed that I had heard what I thought I had heard -- the dude at the podium had essentially just asserted that we didn't exist.

Because, see, we had thought that we were science bloggers, what with blogging about cool scientific findings and strategies for teaching science, learning science, navigating a scientific career, and living as a scientist in a society populated by lots of non-scientists, and that we were mommy bloggers, what with blogging about the joys and challenges of juggling the young humans we were raising with our careers. But apparently, we either didn't count as mommy bloggers (because of all that science content) or as science bloggers (because of the encroachment of all that kid stuff). No true science blogger or mommy blogger would do it like we were doing it.

Actually, the problem as I see it was that the guy on the podium, trying to make the world a better place by encouraging the science bloggers to reach out and educate the mommy bloggers, was operating from an overly narrow picture of each of these groups. Sadly, experience suggests that he is not the only one.

I have had my status as a "real" science blogger questioned because I don't just blog about scientific research (particularly as reported in the peer reviewed scientific literature). In particular, my "Friday Sprog Blogging" posts have been singled out as "fluff" that doesn't belong on a proper science blog. It is true that these anecdotes and transcripts of conversations of my offspring do not undergo rigorous peer review before I post them, but I suspect that the real worry is that having conversations with kids about science is viewed as less important than making new scientific knowledge, or than reporting on such new knowledge in a blog post. Talking to children, after all, is still mostly seen as women's work. How important could it be?

This is a good question to ask oneself when bemoaning the public's lack of interest in or engagement with science. Those members of the public used to be somebody's kids.

At the same time, I will confess that there have been moments when I have not felt entirely welcome in the mommy precincts of blogtopia. Perhaps part of this comes from having a blog with a mostly professional focus on days that are not Friday. But part of it may be connected to the "mommy wars" that the mainstream media gin up on a regular basis. There is a presumption that factions of mommies are engaged in heated battle over The Right Way To Do It. This imagines that each choice a mommy makes is simultaneously a criticism of those who chose otherwise -- whether those choices have to do with taking on primary responsibility for child rearing and housework in the home or going out to a job, choosing public school or private school or homeschooling or unschooling, feeling torn about daycare or deliriously happy when we drop off our little darlings.

I would like to inform the mainstream media and my fellow mothers that my choices are my choices, not judgments of anyone else's choices. Heck, I'm as likely to judge my own choices harshly as anyone else's. But what can you do when you're operating with less than perfect information (as we all are, all the time)? The best that you can.

This is not to say that there aren't moments when I share a strong point of view. In particular, a post I wrote about the ethics of not vaccinating one's kids provoked a vigorous response -- from science bloggers and mommy bloggers alike. (The science bloggers seemed to agree that I was being too nice, while at least some mommy bloggers seemed to think I was either in the bag for big pharma or thoroughly brainwashed by the medical establishment.)

But here's the thing: I've found that my own parenting has required thinking hard, finding reliable sources of information, being willing to step away from sources of information that haven't stood up to scrutiny, figuring out how to balance long-term and short-term considerations, ... really, what we're talking about here is critical thinking. I reckon that women are no worse at critical thinking than your average member of the general public, and I reckon that women with kids have serious incentive to be better than average at critical thinking, since someone else's welfare may depend on it. (I'm not the only one who thinks critical thinking ought to be part of parenting.)

Mommy bloggers have to wade through the gender smog of our culture that tells them that women in general and mommies in particular are presumed to be silly, frivolous creatures, lacking in intelligence and objectivity (not to mention a sense of humor), a special interest that normal human beings can marginalize as necessary to get stuff done.

Women blogging about science often face similar presumptions.

None of this is to say that there are no mommy bloggers, or woman science bloggers, who aren't always on top of their critical thinking game, or who are mistaken about the facts, or who are mean, or what have you. But I submit to you that these failings are not gender based -- that there are plenty of male bloggers who fail at critical thinking, fact-checking, and human kindness.

Having kids and caring about science are not mutually incompatiblestates of being. And either (or both) of these states can be combined with being a woman, and with blogging.

We are far too diverse for any stereotype of science bloggers or of mommy bloggers to describe us all with any fidelity.

And, despite suggestions that mommy bloggers and science bloggers are two distinct groups, many of us are both. We are here. If science bloggers want to reach mommy bloggers, the first step may be to see us as we really are, rather than trying to communicate with who you imagine mommy bloggers to be.

* * * * *
As with all meme-like things, if you want to be tagged, you are. In the meantime, let me point out a few other mommy/science bloggers whose blogs I enjoy reading:


PhD Mom

Kate Clancy


13 responses so far

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