Quick, Who's A Geek?

(by Zuska) Feb 19 2014

Not you, I bet! Unless you're a dude, that is. I know this for sure because just this morning I came across a helpful new tome, The Geek's Guide to Dating, written for dudes who want to get girls.

You keep your action figures in their original packaging. Your closets are full of officially licensed Star Wars merchandise. You’re hooked on Elder Scrolls and Metal Gear but now you’ve discovered an even bigger obsession: the new girl who just moved in down the hall.

What’s a geek to do? Take some tips from The Geek’s Guide to Dating. This hilarious primer is jam-packed with cheat codes, walkthroughs, and power-ups for navigating the perils and pitfalls of your love life with ease. Geeks of all ages will find answers to the ultimate questions of life, the universe, and everything romantic, from First Contact to The Fellowship of the Ring and beyond. Full of whimsical 8-bit illustrations, The Geek’s Guide to Dating will teach fanboys everywhere to love long and prosper.

It would have been out of the question, of course to have written the above thus:

You keep your action figures in their original packaging. Your closets are full of officially licensed Star Wars merchandise. You’re hooked on Elder Scrolls and Metal Gear but now you’ve discovered an even bigger obsession: the new girl Person of Interestwho just moved in down the hall.

What’s a geek to do? Take some tips from The Geek’s Guide to Dating. This hilarious primer is jam-packed with cheat codes, walkthroughs, and power-ups for navigating the perils and pitfalls of your love life with ease. Geeks of all ages types will find answers to the ultimate questions of life, the universe, and everything romantic, from First Contact to The Fellowship of the Ring and beyond. Full of whimsical 8-bit illustrations, The Geek’s Guide to Dating will teach fanboys cosplayers everywhere to love long and prosper.

Out of the question, of course, because then how the hell would you have written the book to go with that? It is geeks, who are dudes, white dudes to be specific, who need help with mating, and it is girls, who may or may not be geeks, who cares, who are out there waiting to be properly mated. Always this way. Dudes, seeking and finding girls, like a precious grail quest. Too bad if you are a geek girl who would like some dating tips on sorting dudes from duds. Or a geek dude who fancies other geek dudes. Or likewise a geek girl whose heart beats faster for other geek girls. No book for you!

The book authors were on this morning's Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane. I hasten to add that they declared, many times, while talking about the book and answering questions, that geek is not an identity owned solely by dudes, that anyone can be a geek, that geek culture has broad meanings and shapes, that it is welcoming to all, and that the openness and welcoming to all is part of what makes geek culture so great.  The irony of having written a book that takes as its unacknowledged knowledge-we-all-share that geeks are dudes completely escaped them. It also seemed to have gone right by Moss-Coane, for the usually quite sharp host did not remark upon this at all.

Why does it take so much help to be a dude? Some years back there was The Dangerous Book for Boys, because boys were in danger of growing up as namby-pamby nancy boys who wouldn't know a penknife if a Real Boy jammed it in their thigh. The Dangerous Book for Girls was promptly produced as an antidote (and for more book sales). Now Real Geekness needs shored up a little with an Actually Real Geeks ARE Men Even Though We As A Community Say We Are Totally Welcoming To All dating manual.

Oh come on, it's all a bit of light-hearted good fun, can't you relax and laugh a little, you feminists have no sense of humor! We even put in a Note To Girl Geeks (see page 19)! Where we said this book is for dudes but if you try hard you can see yourself in it! Except facial hair! If you're so bothered by it, why don't you write your own Geek Girl's Guide to Dating?

Would a Geek Girl's Guide to Dating be of any help? (1) No. (2) No. (3) No. It doesn't address compulsory heterosexuality in geek culture. It doesn't solve the problem of Real Geeks Are Men, But There Are Some She-Geek Oddities As Well. It doesn't address the problem of a book that stakes the claim of a single very specific identity as the center of the universe and equivalent to the community identity. The book is more accurately called The White Geek Dude's Guide to Dating. The following phrases are crutches used to walk away from that: "well, we really do welcome everyone; you should just write your own book" and "some women think it's funny" and "just try to picture yourself in it" and "there aren't that many gay geeks, I never met any" and "if we had to take all that into account,  it wouldn't be funny anymore".

Ah yes. If you had to take everyone else's perspective into account in writing your book, then 95% of the jokes in it wouldn't be funny, would they? Because the funny is based on the unacknowledged knowledge that Real Geeks Are Dudes. Where's the funny in having to admit that Real Geeks Are Men is just a bit of bad cosplay, and that the costume is wearing mighty thin, eh? No book for you.

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Does Intention EVER Matter?

(by Zuska) Jan 29 2014

Via @KMBTweets, I came across this piece offering an analysis of Feminism's Toxic Twitter Wars in The Nation. I harbor the suspicion, and perhaps the hope, that neither side would claim me if we could sit down and have a long talk. And that, if we could have the long talk I dream of, the war would be over. Or at least the part that matters, for the people that care. I leave figuring out what matters and who cares as an exercise for the reader.

Let us begin: to be fair, "toxic feminism" is already at play on twitter, its definition and ownership contested. So I'll allow it in the title, as it is itself part of the wars. Have at it, Young Fresh Face of Feminism's Future and Old Faded Farts of Feminism's Failure! (Please, no discussion of ageism at this time. "We live in a youth culture that hates old people!" "They don't understand Twitter and what's really going on today!" "My joints ache!" "My ass tattoo is itching!" Judean Peoples' Front, piss off! Splinter!) (Yes, I made sweeping generalizations about how the old and young sort themselves. Deal with it.)

However: I am not going to stop calling my vagina a vagina. I am an old crone. A vagina is the name for a thing I have, of which the GOP would like majority ownership. I would like to use the word vagina when I am defending the right to a legal, safe abortion.  I am simply declaring this non-negotiable, at least in the world of this blog, and will score one for the Old FFofFF against the Young FFofFF for proper deployment of intersectionality in achieving one's goals.

Moreover: I can read between the lines.  Why was a "wave of coruscating anger and contempt", poured on the studiously earnest politically correct Femfuturites' heads? Such silly complaints: New York centric, unaddressed groups, neglect of the offline. There was no travel budget! They had nine black women! And really - the offline, at a discussion of the online world! I declare this a well-mixed Cosmopolitan of social class, geography, and race privilege. I refuse to drink and will score one for the Young FFofFF against the Old FFofFF for getting the a theory of intersectionality but not (all) the practice.

With the score tied, let us call a temporary truce and look at this part of the article:

...there’s a norm that intention doesn’t matter—indeed, if you offend someone and then try to explain that you were misunderstood, this is seen as compounding the original injury.

Hoo boy! I can't tell you how many times Mr. Z has gotten himself in hot water with that one! Honey, when I said nobody in their right mind would want to watch a documentary, I was not insulting you. I meant that nobody would voluntarily choose to watch them, unless they want to nap. They are boring. Continue, article:

Again, there’s a significant insight here: people often behave in bigoted ways without meaning to, and their benign intention doesn’t make the prejudice less painful for those subjected to it.

Yep. I don't understand why you are still upset. I said I didn't mean to make you feel bad, and I explained that it's just because documentaries are known to be boring. This is so not helpful. But neither is "it doesn't matter what you say now, the evening is RUINED!!" Back to the article:

However, “that became a rule where you say intentions never matter; there is no added value to understanding the intentions of the speaker,” Cross says...

Added value: I think there IS utility in talking about intentions and what drives them, sometime AFTER, of course, a real apology has been issued. Honey, I'm really, really sorry. I know I hurt your feelings. I don't know why, though, and I never meant to. I want to understand. I want us to have a nice time together and be entertained and not bored. How did I go wrong? What? Is that a copy of No Direction Home on my shelf? Why yes, yes it is. Why do you ask? THAT'S a documentary? And there's more stuff like that out there? Great! Let's look for it!

Oh, wouldn't it be awesome if the conversation went like that. But no. Sometimes, all you get is, I'm sorry, I know I hurt you, I didn't mean to make you feel bad. And the subtext is it makes me feel really bad about myself that I made you feel bad. If this is coming from some whatsisface on the internet, you can pretty much classify this as a nonpology. I didn't mean to make you feel bad so I don't have to do any thing more than say I'm sorry, that should be enough. Except we all know it isn't.

If this is coming from your significant other, depending upon how long you've been together and how much $$ you've thrown down the bottomless pit of couples counseling, this is the cue that it's time for the two of you to use your tools and avoid pushing buttons and if your buttons get pushed count to ten before responding. Even leave the room for awhile if you have to. But come back and talk it out, to make the relationship stronger and communication better going forward.

Maybe your partner says documentaries are boring because he thinks they are all educational stuff he may not understand and is intimidated. Or maybe he says documentaries are boring but he doesn't know what they are and conflates them with something that's "good for you". Or maybe he says they are boring because that film style usually doesn't capture and hold his attention, and he experiences it as boring. Or maybe your partner's a jerk.  First two cases, there's hope of change and seeing things a new way. Third way, there's hope you both can understand each other's point of view, agree to disagree, and enjoy the things you can share. The last one: time to move on and find a new partner.

If my neighbor across the street comes in my house and disses documentaries I'm going to shrug my shoulders. I'm going to say no, it's not my job to prove to you that documentaries are interesting. I'm going to walk away. Or tell the neighbor to leave, I've got documentaries to watch. But if it's my partner - then I'm going to engage. I'm going to go past my hurt and try to get us past our defenses and maybe some insights will occur and maybe it will even end with us watching a documentary together.

The tricky part is when it's someone else close, like a sister. Sisters have long histories and complicated mutual misunderstandings.  "Documentaries are boring! Nobody likes them! Give me a reality show any day." "Documentaries are enthralling! Everybody agrees! They are the real reality shows!" It would be nice if the two got along. But, well, documentaries. And the history. Beyond the history and the COMPLETE cluelessness about documentaries, one is hard of hearing and the other has bad eyesight. One raises her voice; the other points and says "see? see?" over and  over.  They live on different continents. They don't have to keep in touch. It's more peaceful when each sticks to her own circle of friends and leaves the other to her crazy toxic ideas about documentaries.  I mean, if you want to make a good documentary, what could you possibly learn from anybody working on a reality show, or vice versa? Keep that kinda toxic thought outta here!

 

 

 

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Defining the Discourse and Words We Use: Who Gets To?

(by Zuska) Jan 24 2014

So, this is not the way I imagined breaking my writer's block. Or my refraining-from-writing-as-an-act-of-mourning. Or my mourning-induced aphasia. Or whatever is this is. I'm gonna just cross my fingers and hope I don't snap during the writing of this and say something that worsens everyone's depression (except mine) and destroys the universe (because of my omnipotent evil feminazi womanish powers)  which in any case should be ignored (really, the whole post should be ignored, on account of its having been written by a screeching harridan whining about no big deal).  Here we go.

First, I ask thee, gentle Zuskateers, to read Let Me Fix That For You, Nature at Red Ink. (Thanks, @rocza for that link via the twitters.)  Then please read I'm sorry...but you brought this on yourself honey by my dear friend Drugmonkey.

In the first post, Henry Gee's original letter is a discourse-controlling tour-de-force, and Red Ink does a marvelous job of deconstructing his blatherings. One just sits in one's chair, jaw agape at the hilariously depressingly superb job that is this pulling of the truth out of truthiness's ass. It both entertains and instructs. One gets a delightful dose of schadenfreude in the reading of it, whilst simultaneous schooled by the unmasking of rhetorical tricks Gee deploys .

Next up is Drugmonkey's blog piece, offering a detailed analysis of  Gee's nonpologetic discourse. Wait for it... comment #4 tells us how he is doing itt rong, and in an inflammatory manner, and how the rong is ineffective to boot. Trifecta of discourse control!

Commenter #4's knickers got bunched over all the rong because (a) Drugmonkey used an analogy - ineffective! and (b) Drugmonkey picked a bad analogy - inflammatory!  Drugmonkey might as well be talking to a brick wall. Or worse, trying to talk to someone on the other side of the brick wall but all his shouting for attention makes them climb up the wall and shove some bricks onto his head to shut him up.

I'm sorry. I know that was confusing and possibly inflammatory. The person atop the wall could have poured boiling oil on his head. Or shot him with flaming arrows.

Now, as Drugmonkey did, we pause here for a trigger warning regarding abuse, should you read further.

Continue Reading »

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Why Don't The Humanities Bring Science Into Their Classrooms?

(by Zuska) Nov 19 2013

In my usual graceful manner, I barged into a conversation on twitter between @Drew_Lab and @LauraSBooth regarding this point: "I see scientists bringing in Steinbeck, I never see English profs bringing in science." Nuh-uh, I said, they do too bring in The Science! And I promised references.

This post is my reply. Some qualifiers: I don't claim this is an exhaustive round-up of what's out there. It's just what I know about and can lay my hands on quickly. Also, consider these ponderings.

1. Humanities and social science scholars have been studying, critiquing, and writing about science & technology since forever. There's even a whole field called Science, Technology, and Society, with journals and conventions and classes and even, in some places, one can major in it. Does any of this scholarly activity count as bringing in science?

2. I will acknowledge, these scholars are not running gels or differentiating equations in their classes or having poster sessions of latest results at their meetings. But is this what we need humanities and social science scholars to do, really? And what outcome do we expect or want if they do?

3. What do we mean by science? What kinds of things do we want brought into non-science classrooms? Does that differ significantly from field to field?  Is history of science good enough? Are critiques of science (STS, feminist theory) sufficient? Do we want humanities students to learn actual bits of science - and if so, what bits?  Is the entrance of science into the humanities/social science classroom to be a demonstration of the wonder of science? Are the students to learn the scientific method, to think like scientists?

I'll stop now.

If your campus has a women's studies program, there is a chance that someone in that program has been doing something with science in one of their classes. This will most likely be one of two things: history or critique. Women's studies scholars look at the history of lost and forgotten women in science, and the barriers women faced against their participation in science. Margaret Rossiter's three-volume Women Scientists in America is a comprehensive overview, but of course there is much to be said outside these volumes and about women outside the U.S.

Women's studies scholars also critique the practice of science, its processes and products. Books on these topics are too numerous to list.

There are many courses that take these topics as their subject or include them as a portion of the course.  There once was an archive of these courses accessible through the wmst-l site but the link seems to be broken now. The wmst-l listserv would be a source of information for people who have or are currently teaching courses in these areas.

STS programs list their courses: check out Stanford's program's offerings. I want to take Text Technologies: A History. That sounds so cool.  Take a look at their faculty list - they come from all sorts of disciplines. OMG Helen Longino is there! Fangirl moment!

I would also like to point out that the esteemed Janet Stemwedel, @DocFreeride, teaches about ethics and science. Surely that must count as bringing science into the classroom. Do not argue that point.

There are print resources. The book Feminist Science Studies: A New Generation ed. M. Mayberry, B. Subramaniam, and L. Weasel, contains several useful essays. Take "Difficult Crossings: Stories From Building Two-Way Streets" by Baker, Shulman, and Tobin. A several-years long program designed to help scientists bring women's studies into their classrooms and vice-versa, it did not try to do both at the same time. The project devoted an entire year to each. I would bet that this project yielded more publications than just this book chapter. It might be worthwhile looking for them, or just contacting one of the authors about it. This is the most organized approach I am aware of.There could be others, I just don't know about them, as this has not been an area I've focused on.

There are two more essays in the book, companion pieces by Subramaniam and by Witmore. Subramaniam was a biological scientist, Witmore a rhetorician. He analyzed her scientific writing as rhetoric. They each wrote about the experience and outcome. I believe any scientist or humanities scholar would find these pieces of interest.

I myself have collaborated with a social scientist,  and we produced a publication! "Telling Stories About Engineering: Group Dynamics and Resistance to Diversity". It is in NWSA Journal, vol 16 no 1 spring 2004 pp 79-95. It's in an anthology somewhere but you can get it at your uni library in the journal form.

Helen Longino famously collaborated with Ruth Doell to write Body, Bias, Behavior: a Comparative Analysis of Reasoning in Two Areas of Biology Science.  So yeah, publications are not classes, but actual collaborations of a non-scientist with a scientist are worthy of note, I think.

One last significant publication: Sally Hacker's book Pleasure, Power, and Technology: Some Tales of Engineering and the Cooperative Workplace. Hacker was a sociologist who actually took calculus classes. Then she wrote about the role intro calc performs in the lives of engineering students: how important calculus was as a gate-keeper, how it functioned as a maker of men from the boys.

This is a completely random listing of things that I think speak to the question of "English profs bringing in science".  There would be more links if my head hurt less right now.  It may or may not be helpful, and it may or may not answer the original question. I think that's about a complete CYA. I shall therefore stop now.

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Give Us This Day Our Daily Meds

(by Zuska) Nov 19 2013

Med Art

Daily Meds as Medi-Art

 

Not inclusive of meds "taken as needed" for migraine! Or the PPI, every other day-ish. I wish I could call mom and tell her I'm catching up to her all-time impressive total.** Winning! Winning!

 

**We did manage to get it re-evaluated and whittled down to a more reasonable number.

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Why I Won't Be Registering For ScienceOnline Together 2014

(by Zuska) Nov 14 2013

ETA 11/18/13: As Karen Traphagen points out in the comments below, the session on Broadening the participation of the disability community in online science is indeed included in the schedule for ScienceOnline Together 2014. I was wrong to imply it was not, simply because I had not located it in the schedule, and I thank Karen for pointing this out. I am glad to know this session will be included in the conference. My point about the registration procedure and the issues it creates for people with disabilities - or for people with caregiver responsibilities that can't be shirked at the one particular registration time, or anyone else who has to be in a meeting or a class or on the job or attending to any other responsibility at all - still holds. If registration is a scarce and limited commodity, then the current allocation system is, in my opinion, heavily weighted in favor of people with certain types of advantage, like excellent internet access, free time, flexible schedules, good health, and no major caregiving responsibilities, among others. Except for the 75 consolation spots, of course. Good luck!

The ScienceOnline Together 2014 registration for 200 spots opens today at 3 pm EST.  I've been lucky - and I do mean lucky -  to attend all the past annual incarnations of this event. The first time it helped to be part of the small group of people who knew about it and who encouraged me to go to it. Later it helped to have enough spare time and reasonably good health to participate in session organization, and money to afford registration, travel, and lodging. Most recently it helped to be literally lucky enough to win one of a few lottery spots.

It looks like lots of good sessions  were proposed this year including one called Broadening participation of the disability community in online science.That one doesn't seem to have made it into the schedule, although I'm not sure about the relationship between sessions and schedule.  I haven't exactly been keeping up on the details of conference proposals and organization, in large part because of my chronic migraines.

Speaking of the migraines, today at 3 pm EST I will be in my neurologist's office. He will be giving me a botox treatment for the migraines, something he does once every three months. During the treatment I will be wincing and mildly cursing from the pain of the needles, and hoping for better results than the two previous treatments. One thing I will not be doing during the treatment is asking my doc to hold the needles for a few minutes while I whip out my iPad, borrow the hospital's wifi, log into ScienceOnline Together 2014, and attempt online registration.

It looks like I, along with the session on Broadening the participation of the disability community in online science, will be absent from ScienceOnline Together 2014.

What's that you say? There's a lottery for 75 spots after the real registration, just for sick/loser folk such as myself? Why that is awfully kind and generous.

If we are not to discuss how to Broaden the Participation of the Disability Community in Online Science, we might at least facilitate their participation in Online Science Unconferences by not requiring them to hover anxiously over their computers at a one specific time to compete for the scarce commodity of registration spots. In fact, we might Broaden the Participation of Just About Damn Near Everybody if ALL the available spots were in a lottery, and everyone who wanted to go to the conference had to sign up for the lottery. Then people who were privileged with better online access, more free time, and luxurious good health wouldn't have the upper hand.

Do you want a 2:1 ratio of professionals to students? Put the professionals and students in different lottery pools, and split up the spots in the appropriate ratio. I think that might be fair, to help boost the student representation; they might tend to under-register, and professionals to over-register, in the lottery pool. Do you want 50:50 gender balance? Within your lottery pools, first select one person randomly from the male and then one from the female candidate pools. Do  you want a diverse racial/ethnic representation? If you collect this information on the lottery registration, then use the results to weight your selections. What, this isn't a fair lottery anymore? My dear friends, the current state of affairs is already Unfair.

Having money, being relatively healthy, knowing the right people combined to help me access the conference in the past. Being white and straight is, we can be sure, helpful in knowing the right people. It's my shame that my luck in years past obscured the unfairness inherent in this (and other) conference registration situations. But that's what privilege does for you. It helps you not see what will inconvenience you. Dismantling some of that privilege might have made it less likely that I would get to go to all of those conferences. So perhaps it's just as well that I sit at home in 2014.

 

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The Intro to Philosophy Take on Women's History

(by Zuska) Oct 30 2013

Today in intro to philosophy - the First Woman Writer Ever!
Learn with me.

Descartes was a really impressive dude. There were some problems with his Method. Princess Elisabeth wrote letters to him and asked him some good questions. She was kind of like Socrates in her letters, asking why and how. She was not playing a game, she was genuinely curious, kind of like she was saying you're this big intelligent man and I'm just a little princess over here trying to understand things.* Their correspondence was pretty cool. After Descartes died, Princess Elisabeth decided not to publish her letters, because, well, you see, there were some sentimental things in the letters. You know, that might have hinted at a relationship. So she kept them private. They were published long after her death. It's too bad she didn't agree to publish the letters, because they are the earliest known significant writing ever done by a woman! For realz! And if they had been published by Princess Elisabeth, people would have known a lot sooner that women were just as intelligent and capable of rational thought as men! Truth! [Because one exception was all that was needed to deconstruct an edifice of structural oppression. And obviously as soon as the letters came to light that edifice was demolished!]  Uh, you could ask a feminist philosopher or women's studies professor about it but I'm pretty sure this is the earliest writing by women that we have. [I am not an expert, some dudebro told me this, I didn’t bother to ask a women’s studies professor because a) really, and b) if a woman had written something I’d know about it.]

*Yes, he said "kind of like she was saying you're this big intelligent man and I'm just a little princess over here trying to understand things.

 

So when I got home, I went to the googles, and whaddya know, there's Hildegard von Bingen's theological writing in the 1100's. And Christine de Pisan's Book of the City of Ladies in 1405. Ann Bradstreet published a book of poetry in 1650. And then there's The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikbu, "considered the world's first novel",

praised for the complex relationships between and among the characters. This is especially true regarding the portrayal of personal desire and the constraints that rank and gender in a highly hierarchical society place upon it, as well as the hidden tensions inherent in the conduct of Genji’s highly calibrated social and personal relationships. The novel is striking also for the compelling evocation of its characters’ minds, particularly of women of various ranks mulling upon their lot in life. In certain instances, these women exhibit an understanding of the workings of the psyche in terms almost modern.

It was written in the Heian Era (794-1185 CE).

But philosophy is what dudebros do. Hildegard was just writing about her visions in response to some "divine command" (not at all like Socrates's daimon).  Pisan's Book of the City of Ladies is just a pastiche done by a dancing dog while Augustine's City of God is philosophy. A bunch of poems or a gossipy book about ladeez and court life - you can't even talk about them in the same breath as Aristotle's Poetics. So I think we wimmin folk are lucky for two reasons.  Princess Elisabeth's letters made it into the philosophy category. And they got published so now everyone knows women are equally as smart as men. This is what makes the discipline of philosophy a warm and welcoming haven for women. Now that we have that straight, let us turn our attention back to Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche.

You know, I want to study those dude philosophers. Understanding them is important for understanding a lot of other stuff. It's like learning algebra and trig before going on to calculus. But it burns my shorts to get my intro to philosophy with breezy "women are equal" jibber-jabber undermined in the same or next breath with condescension and implications about women's emotions blocking the progress of philosophy. And I really don't like it combined with casually wrong stories about women's history. I've got enough experience and knowledge not to be fooled or damaged by this crap, but those young kids in class with me? Well, they're just starting to learn, aren't they.

 

 

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Some Thoughts On Shaming (Maybe Not What You Think)

(by Zuska) Oct 20 2013

Thanks to a tweet from @Namnezia, I read this post: On chronic illness, disclosure, and imposter syndrome. The writer, who goes simply by the name disabledphd, tells of acquiring a "Stupid F'n Medical Condition" (which is how I shall think of the migraines henceforth) as a graduate student. Here's the advice he/she got about whether to disclose this information going forward in his/her career:

The main piece of situation-specific advice I was given was that moving forward in my career I should be very careful about disclosing my SFMC. This advice echoed from every corner I tilted an ear to. I heard it from mentors, from family in academia and from people I didn’t know but reached out to because it seemed like they had solid perspectives on academic careers. It was an amazing show of unanimity – Seriously, you try getting that many academic types to agree on a single issue! And when I thought about it at the time, it seemed completely sensible.

Assuming my goal is a tenure track position, do I really want the fact that I have this thing out there? Even in the best case scenarios, it places an asterisk over my future that committees looking to hire people into lifelong positions might take note of. Probably a silent note, possibly even a subconscious one, but the cold fact is that no one has to tell you why you didn’t get the job, especially amid a glut of qualified applicants. And manifestations of consequence could be more subtle than simply not getting hired. One academic I spoke with noted that colleagues in positions of power might hold back advancement opportunities because they ‘don’t want to stress you out with extra work.’ In the politics of academia, such a decision could be well-intended or it could be nefarious. But in the end, it wouldn’t matter. An opportunity missed is an opportunity missed. I look back at nearly a decade of work shaped by chance opportunities and shudder at the notion.

Yikes.

With that kind of helpful advice, who wouldn't try to deny one's own reality go into deep cover?

Of course, it eventually proved impossible to maintain a facade of "nothing to see here!" At some point, disabledphd "broke" and told the boss. The description of the fallout is painful to read: not because the employer was unkind or discriminatory, but because of the emotional toll the secret exacted on disabledphd. This emotional toll was not lifted by speaking the truth.

And why should it be? This is what disabledphd says:

So why do I say ‘broke’? Because somehow, without meaning to, I turned disclosure into the null hypothesis of my little experiment. Telling someone meant failure, even if he/she was someone I was all but certain would be fully supportive. This was my own mistake, constructing a psychological Maginot line against a war of my own creation.

There was definitely a failure here, but not on the part of disabledphd.

With secrets come shame. In characterizing the knowledge of disability as a career-shattering demon to be kept hidden, disabledphd's science family made the fact of disability into a personal shame. You can succeed in science - if no one knows you are defective. If you have a disability but keep it from showing, then it's perfectly fine to have a disability. (I can't think what sort of advice would be given to people with disabilities that cannot be hidden. I imagine letters of reference with lines about how "brave" they are and what an "inspiration" they are to everyone around them...)

The flip side of successfully, or mostly, hiding your disability, is that people doubt its authenticity, legitimacy, and/or severity. Regarding migraines, a friend once made the droll remark "if you don't have blood and pus streaming out of your ears, no one thinks it's serious."  Tell us about it: we'll punish you. Heroically manage it: we won't believe you and you'll punish yourself for us. Yay. Great choices.

No matter how well-intentioned the advice givers were, the effect was to cause shame. And, it helped to perpetuate the idea in the larger scientific community that disability is a liability and must be kept hidden. The disability-is-a-liability-that-rules-you-out discourse facilitates the agenda of sexists who label pregnancy as a disability and cite it as valid reason for discriminating against women. If you don't buy that discourse about pregnancy but you do about disability in general, you are undermining your own efforts to support women in science. And hey! Some people with chronic, invisible disabilities happen to be women! Lots of them, in fact. Intersectionality!

We've seen, in the past week, the poisonous effect secrets and shame have wrought in the scicomm community. (#ripplesofdoubt)  When someone is raped, abused, harassed or mistreated in any manner, they are often asked to keep quiet about it, for the sake of someone/something else - someone's job, keeping the family peaceful and intact, whatever. But when we ask for quiet we are asking to keep things just like they are right now. Right now, when white people say we're "post-racial" and find clever new ways to discriminate; when women must hide abuse and assault or face more harassment; when people with disabilities need to live like they don't have them in order to obtain "equal employment opportunities".

If you are in a position of power, and you ask someone to keep a secret rather than telling them "I've got your back", you are laying bricks in Oz. And Oz doesn't need any more help. It's distressing to learn, and keep learning, how entangled we all are in building and maintaining the edifice of our own and others' oppression. It's difficult and scary to stop doing even the little things, and figure out how to do them differently, or better. But we have to try.

 

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Who Else Would The Perpetrator Be?

(by Zuska) Oct 18 2013

I understand full well why some people pressure victims to keep quiet. It's not, despite what they say, for the sake of the perpetrator and his/her reputation/ability to earn a living/the poor family etc. Or not just that. It's to keep to keep us all from looking behind the curtain. We must all continue staring straight ahead at the big green scary head of the great and powerful Oz (where Oz is, variously, patriarchy, racism, heteronormativity, unfettered capitalism, ableism, or some heady stew of it all).

 

 

The shouting, the scary noise, the bellowing smoke and flames - the big green head cannot produce these effects on its own. Someone must pull the levers and speak into the microphone. It takes a village, if you will, to run Oz. In Oz, supplicants are given minor rewards and the right to prepare future supplicants to appear before Oz. If they work hard, they can one day pull some of the levers themselves. Indeed, one day they must, or Oz will collapse. Livelihoods and the very architecture of Oz depend upon Oz. It is best to strictly regulate who can get close to Oz, lest the curtain and thus Oz and thus everything be endangered.

All this is logical, and easy enough to understand.

What I don't get is this: Say someone yanks the curtain aside a little bit. Look, see, this person. This person is a perpetrator. And the good people of Oz are shocked and appalled. They are shocked that one of their own is involved in the lever-pulling.

Well, who else would the perpetrator be? It is the colleague who harasses, who casually flings racial insults. It is the brother who molests. It is the priest who rapes. These people do not come from Mars. They come from right here where we live and work, in Oz. They are our neighbors and friends, our co-workers and bosses, our lovers and relatives, our clergy and officers. They may be very good people, but they are very bad friends, bosses, priests. They are, indeed, humbugs. Just as we know that Ted Cruz is a humbug of a member of Congress, we know these people are humbugs of what they purport to be in our lives. Perhaps they are nice to their pets and give generously to good causes. Perhaps they have been good to other people at other times. But their acts behind the curtain have made of them a humbug of the role they would play before it.

When the curtain is pulled back, it is right to feel shock and sadness at what we see - but not at who we see. The levers are being pulled all day long, every day, and somebody you know is doing the pulling. It cannot be otherwise. To continue to think otherwise is to lay bricks in Oz.

Maybe it was you once. Maybe you had a minor lever, just a tiny puff of smoke. Maybe you had to learn how to let go of the lever, try to walk out of Oz, and build something new. Oz is so appealing, though. You know how things work there; the climate's always just right for you; you don't have to think about things so much. You thought you were walking out of Oz but you're right back where you started...will you sigh and once more grasp the lever? or try walking out of Oz again? There is no balloon, and there are no ruby slippers. Just a long, difficult walk, away from everything comfy and safe, with everyone in Oz yelling "come back! come back! you're crazy! we'll kill you!"

 

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The Cabbage is Sad

(by Zuska) Oct 04 2013

I've been eating a soup of struggle, pain, and loss for the past two years. Still I have not found my way back to the center, and I begin to suspect there is no one who will or can say "stop, little pot".

Mr. Z and I throw in a dash of bluegrass festival or getaway vacation or just an evening's Jeopardy-watching marathon to season, as we can. In this way it is possible to continue eating the soup; our eyes meet over the rim of our bowls, and we remember the world-without-soup.

In the past few months, we have been eating the soup of sorting, packing, giving away, and leave-taking. My siblings and I are clearing out the house my mother lived in for over eighty years, the house she was, literally, born in, so that it can be sold. Mr. Z and I are helping his parents winnow down their already-once-winnowed possessions for the move from two-bedroom condo to daughter's house. Three lifetime's worth of belongings form a river past our selves; some diverted to siblings, some to charity, some to us, until the river will dry up. As our tributary washes in the front door I begin to dig a channel out the back, pouring in unworn clothing, unused bedding, dishes-replaced-with-dishes, furniture-with-furniture. My channel is no match for the tributary, itself a tiny offshoot of the river; the house floods with worldly goods, memories, and regrets. The river itself would drown me if I am not careful.

Yesterday evening Mr. Z came home with three pottery bowls and a cookbook. You've seen the type; a church or community or extended family gathers favorite and treasured recipes; they are typed up, printed, often spiral bound with a cover evoking embroidery or tatted lace. This morning I began reading the tales of food, love, friends and family. Appetizers and Pickles proved disappointing. How many Taco Dip recipes does one need? The next section was Soup, and there it was, first recipe on the first page: Cabbage and Potato Soup. Hungarians, cabbage and potato soup - surely this will be good. The ingredients list included Kalbasz and sour cream; very promising. And then the first instruction:

Place cabbage in large bowl; sprinkle with salt. Allow it to get sad.

If only this cookbook came with a bubba! Perhaps a DVD bubba, if a real-life one cannot be assigned. A bubba to say "this is how cabbage looks and feels when it is sad; this is what I mean by 'stir occasionally'; lard will not kill you, eat, eat!; done but not mushy is like this; season to taste just so; and here is where you can get real Kalbasz, or how to make it if the old ones are all gone."

Alas, it does not. My mother is gone. My mother-in-law is moving away. I shall have to content myself with My Grandmother's Ravioli. And imagine I am a bubba myself, and try the Cabbage and Potato soup recipe. I will allow the cabbage to get sad; I will stir occasionally; I will cook until tender; I will cook until done but not mushy. I will mix and return to pot. I will season to taste, and I will always remove scum from top of water when cooking with small strainer.

I will do all this, as A.W. asked, in memory of E.R., and in honor of all the bubbas who so willingly cooked and served up food and love against the struggle, pain, and loss, all throughout my life.

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What (I Think) I Know About Logic And Knowledge

(by Zuska) Sep 26 2013

With apologies to Dr. Seuss, and to philosophers, logicians, and poets everywhere.

LOGIC, or, The Philosopher Edits Dr. Seuss

1st submission: My shoe is off. My foot is cold. I have a bird I like to hold. (1)

You have here a valid, yet unsound argument. The holding of the bird is required neither by the offness of the shoe nor the coldness of the foot.

Revision 1: My shoe is off – my foot is cold. My foot is cold…my shoe is off!

Better, in that the irrelevant bird has fled the scene; but worse: this is made unsound by the very fact that the whole structure is itself invalid! The offness of the shoe is not required by the coldness of the foot. To wit: coldness of foot may also be caused by thinness of sock.

Revision 2: My shoe is off: my foot is cold. My shoe is off. My foot is cold.

Excellent! Valid, and sound. Persevere.

Revision 3: My shoe is off – my foot is cold. My foot is warm...my shoe is on. And now it's time to sing this song.

 

KNOWLEDGE

It is not an easy thing
To understand the song they sing
It grows, adds new words over time
Watch out! It turns round on a dime.

Physis, nomos, flux, the One
Atoms (but not like hydrogen)
Paradoxes, Sophistry
Hemlock juice for Socrates

Simple concepts, hard to follow
Up the mountain! Down the hollow!
Back to the grove! The maze of logos
Either leads, or makes fools of us.

A fish is old, a fish is new
A fish is yellow, red, or blue.
A fish is here and gone today.
The Form of Fish is here to stay.

A Fish and Fish make two, I say.
Two Fish by night, two Fish by day.
We know the Fish, without a doubt.
Yet still we cannot catch a trout.

 

(1) Quote from "One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish" by Dr. Seuss, 1960, Random House Books

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You "Lean In" to Puke. You Organize For Change.

(by Zuska) Sep 13 2013

I have no problem with leaning in. Really I don't. If you are going to puke on someone's shoes, you had best lean in a little, lest the spatter hit your own glorious footwear.  And Zuskateers know that it's just sadly necessary to give someone a proper shoe-puking now and again, if only for the sake of our own mental health.

But if it's real, substantive change we're after, then we'd best be talking about organizing and collective action. In all cases, it is most heartily recommended that one know something of one's history. Our foremothers' struggles and triumphs are inspirational, to be sure, but they are also instructional.

Do not waste your time, energy, or cash enriching Sheryl Sandberg with her corporatized vision of a pseudo-feminism for individuals. Do not Lean In. Do read Susan Faludi's excellent critique of that whole hot mess situating it in history dating back to the Lowell "mill girls" in 1834. I must confess I did not know this:

The mill workers went on to agitate against an unjust system in all its forms. When Lowell’s state representative thwarted the women’s statewide battle for the ten-hour day, they mobilized and succeeded in having him voted out of office—nearly eighty years before women had the vote. Mill women in Lowell and, in the decades to come, their counterparts throughout New England threw themselves into the abolitionist movement (drawing connections between the cotton picked by slaves and the fabric they wove in the mills); campaigned for better health care, safer schools, decent housing, and cleaner water and streets; and joined the fight for women’s suffrage.

Now that is far more interesting than that Leaning In bla. If those women, in the 1800s, through collective action, could get a dudebro out of office without even having the vote, imagine what we could accomplish today with the vote. If only we organized. And worked together. And stopped thinking of success as something that individuals obtain, for their own self-interests.

 

Hat tip to @KMBTweets for the link to the Faludi article. Follow @KMBTweets on twitter. You will not be sorry!

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Back to School All Over Again

(by Zuska) Sep 06 2013

Life-long learning!

Who doesn't want to know more stuff?!?

Do you remember ever once saying "I'd be a professional student if I could?"

WHAT WERE YOU THINKING???!?!?!?

Two days ago I set foot upon the fifth - count 'em! fifth! - campus of my life wherein I shall be a student, albeit just for a semester, and just for one class. This waking nightmare is the fault of my neurologist. It's his way of testing out whether or not I can keep to even a minimal schedule and focus for a (limited) extended period of time several times a week, without things getting much worse migraine-wise.

He insisted that the course be something quite challenging, and suggested some sort of mathematics. I felt I have had enough mathematics to last me a lifetime (no offense to my dear friend and brilliant math guru Mark @MarkCC). So I picked philosophy: PHL 100, Intro to Philosophy. And what do we commence with? Logic. Logic, which is akin to math. But of course!

I must note here two interesting and somewhat discouraging observations from my brand-new one-day experience as a student. We shall call them (1) What? Where? Help? and (2) All That Feminist Theory in Action.

(1) What? Where? Help?  New Campus is a nearby, very good community college that draws a diverse student population.  Their website is one of the most friendly, welcoming, and easy to navigate of any I have ever seen. Colleges and universities across the land could take many a lesson from New Campus's website.  As I mentioned, this is not my first student rodeo (4 degrees, worked for a university).  And yet...registering for the course did not go smoothly. New Campus has me in their database as a former student with a student i.d. number because four years ago, my neurologist asked me to try the Take a Course experiment.  I tried it at New Campus and had to withdraw within weeks. Returning students need their student i.d. number to register.  But I didn't remember that number. No problem, friendly online registration will look it up for me! by my name and social security number! Oops, I cannot be found in the system. Sorry. So I registered as a new, not a returning, student. No problem, registration app accepted! The online form asked for my email; I gave it. I was to be notified within two business days of my course status.

Days went by...a week...there was a family crisis...I forgot about the registration...then suddenly, hey, this is the first day of the semester! I called New Campus. A friendly staff person told me I had indeed been registered, but then dropped from the course, because I had not paid my tuition. Why had I not received notification of my registration? It had been sent to me, via email - to my New Campus student email account. Which I did not realize I had and could not have accessed if I did, because I did not have my student i.d. number.  Long story short, staff person put me back in the class, took my tuition payment over the phone via credit card, gave me my student i.d. number, and walked me through the web portal, which is all quite easy and obvious if (a) you know it exists, (b) you know you should look there, and (c) you have your student i.d. number.

When you check your course registration online, there is a nifty option to order your textbook from a link right there beside the course! Then you just go pick it up at the bookstore! How handy! As it turns out, ordering your textbook actually means ordering it, as in, they will now ask for it to be fetched from some faraway warehouse. It does not mean, you have purchased a book that is physically lying on a shelf here in the bookstore and we are reserving it for when you come in to pick it up.  Luckily, there were actually textbooks physically in store, and I was able to buy one of those and cancel my order.

Now, I have not been a student in some time, so all this stuff may be old hat to the twelve-year-olds jostling past me on the New Campus pathways. (Students! So young!) But I am really, really feeling for the Adult Learners who do often come to community colleges for a degree or certificate program as part of a career re-boot, or even a career start, in some cases. Nevertheless, I suspect that every student, young and old, can identify a little with the stomach-churning anxiety of looking for your classroom in an unfamiliar building - especially when you have missed the first day of class. The stakes are about as low as they can possibly be for me, and I still felt that anxiety of not knowing my place in this place, being alone in the swarm, and already behind at the start.  It vanished at the desk, after I sat down in what was assuredly the right room, wrote the date at the top of a fresh notebook page, and commenced studenting. But I have a lot of empathy for the twelve-year-olds.

(2) All That Feminist Theory in Action  It is with dampened spirits and a cheerless heart that I report this to you: my class contains A Dude Who Talks All The Time. He is compelled to answer every question the instructor asks, often before it is quite fully out of the poor man's mouth. Many times it is on the tails of comment from another student who managed to get a smidge of words in before Dude's Autopilot SuperJaw opened to spew forth his brilliance. He will mansplain your answer to the professor for you, because the Things Women Say are difficult for instructors to understand unless a sympathetic mansplainer mansplains them into mansplain-speak. What a bracing experience indeed, to be a 50-year-old woman in PHL 100, and watch some twelve-year-old mansplain your words to a twenty-something instructor, whose head immediately swivels towards the translation.

Obviously, I cannot let this continue. The Dude Who Talks All The Time was sitting right smack in the center of the classroom. I think I will be sitting there come next class time. And if the instructor is not going to do more to actively keep him from mansplaining and controlling the discussion, I will have a word with the instructor.  I welcome your suggestions in the comments for fun things I can do in class to deal with TDWTATT.

Near the end of the class, we had a small group break-out to work on the logic structures from the lecture. I was in a group with two twelve-year-olds, one male and one female. I would say they had about an equal grasp of (a) what the instructor was asking us to do in our small group work and (b) the actual concepts he had gone over in the lecture. You, like me, may be dismayed but not surprised to learn that the female, with a deer-in-the-headlights look, kept saying that she wasn't quite sure, and that she felt like she got it for just a minute and then it would slip away. When we finished an item she wanted to review it to make sure she understood it.  Whereas the male, who made little eye contact with either of us, except when I would tell him "no, that's not correct", confidently pronounced "ok this is an X" or "We need to do Y" or "this one is valid AND sound" (it wasn't). And when we finished an item he just wanted to charge on to the next one, even though he didn't exactly know what it was.

So, I may have a little work cut out for me in the small group sessions. Have to tread lightly, but I can't just let the Overconfident Dudes get away with making the Underconfident Wimminz feel worse about things. Especially in light of the dismal state of affairs for women in philosophy. (Have you been following the NYTimes Opinionator Women In Philosophy series? Start here.)  Please do fire away with helpful suggestions in the comments, also please feel free to vent your bile about similar situations you have observed, either as student or instructor.

 

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I Wasn't Hearing That So Nicely For So Long

(by Zuska) Aug 14 2013

Last night I found a note I’d written to myself at least two and maybe three years ago, at the end of a beach vacation.

The ocean’s so vast – we can’t imagine it fished out.  Mom has been with me so long – I can’t imagine I will lose her. We don’t want to imagine these things. We tell ourselves all is okay even in the face of blatant evidence to the contrary.

Z contemplates life, the universe, and everything

Z contemplates life, the universe, and everything

I knew, from the moment we first got the diagnosis of congestive heart failure for mom, that we were at the beginning of the end. I knew that CHF could be managed, but not cured. And even if it could be cured, there is no cure for life. I knew but as my father-in-law says when we offer information he is not thrilled to receive: “I don’t hear that.”

This was maybe in 2004.  As one does, I resolved to treat time as precious. Resolutions waver, especially in the face of one’s own chronic illness. I often think about the four relatively good years of mom’s life that I let slip by.

In the summer of 2007 she expressed a desire to go to Cape Hatteras once again. It was a family vacation spot with many happy memories.  My younger sister and I managed to take her there for a week in September. We did everything. She didn't even want to wheel by a little yellow flower without a closer look.

The flower she couldn't pass by.

The flower she couldn't pass by.

One night she had food poisoning from some bad shrimp. We feared that she would be out for the rest of the week; I knew how long a similar bout would knock me down. The next morning she up was up, ready, and determined to go. Perhaps she knew this would be her last vacation trip ever. I thought it would be her last. But I didn't hear that.

Happy feet at Hatteras

Happy feet at Hatteras

 

It was January of 2008 when she moved into assisted living.

I became her power of attorney and as time went on, became ever more intimately involved with her affairs and her life. She called me often, sometimes several times a day, and left little voice messages if she didn’t catch me. Suzanne, it’s me, I just called to talk a little bit. Okay, I’ll talk to you later. Bye-bye. Suzanne, it’s me. I just called to see if you’re watching the Steelers. Okay, talk to you later. Her Reader’s Digest subscription needed renewal; send a check to the KDKA Turkey Fund at Thanksgiving; donate to the Red Cross for the Haiti earthquake or the tsunami in Japan.  She would remind me to pay the hairdresser at the assisted living home, tell me to buy a lottery ticket when the jackpot got high (“and one for yourself!”), and ask me to “bring some extra cash” the next time I visited, to pay for some handmade cards purchased from a friend.

Her health status oscillated, each time the peaks scaling a little less height, the troughs diving a little deeper.  The cane left at home when she moved to AL; first a walker, then sometimes a transport chair or wheelchair, then almost always the chairs, while we were out and about. She said she dreamed of being at a home town wedding in the firehall, walking around and saying hi to everyone seated in the chairs around the edge of the dance floor, and I just walked and walked and walked! It was such a good dream! But it's never gonna be. I listened and I sympathized and I felt sad. Still, I didn't hear that, not really.

Last October she was in rehab; at the end of my visit, she tried to coax me to stay an extra day. In my mind I had to get back home for some damn thing. I'm not going to live forever, Suzanne she said. I really did not hear that.

Even as late as last Thanksgiving I was still not hearing so nicely. She'd gotten as strong as I'd seen her in years after a round of PT at the rehab facility and was so happy to be back at her assisted living home. She surely had at least another year yet. We had a glorious feast in her home with many family members present, and she tasted the pleasure of every moment. We made silly art sculptures from vegetable pieces and she laughed.

 

Thanksgiving spread at mom's house

Thanksgiving spread at mom's house

Veggie art

Veggie art

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day she fell and broke her arm. In the ER she said to me "This ruins everything" and my heart broke.

I knew broken bones are often the death knell of the elderly; but I didn’t hear that. “It’s only her arm, not her hip” I soothed. “She will recover! It will just take time!” In the nursing home she experienced excruciating pain at the slightest jostling, and by Christmas she was a shadow of the vibrant woman she had been one holiday earlier. By the first week of January, when Dr. Bones pronounced her healed and said the sling could go, she didn’t give much of a good goddamn about anything.  Or perhaps more accurately: she would have given it, but she was clean out of goddamns, good or bad.

I knew for sure then that the end was very close, and yet, I was not having any hearing of that.  Maybe she needed her meds adjusted, or she wasn’t getting enough attention at the nursing home, or the right attention, or she needed to be encouraged more in rehab. Or a pony, or a unicorn.

One afternoon of the week I was to leave for Science Online 2013, waiting at a red light, I saw an unusual number of cars go through the intersection before me. I saw, but I didn’t see that. The light turned green and the line of traffic just kept on going through the intersection. One, two , three cars…what the hell…red light runners are so fucking annoying…I honked my horn. And then I saw that. I saw the last two cars with little flags attached to their hoods. Flags that said “funeral”.  Oh! Sorry, sorry, I mouthed, hands waving wildly as if that would both communicate my apology and magically ward off some kind of bad karma I had just created.

A few days later, during a meal at SciO13, my cell rang, and it was my younger sister. She told me mom had had what looked like a stroke, and she was having trouble talking, and they had taken her to the hospital for observation. I knew what that meant. And this time, I heard that. I heard everything my sister said, and some things she didn't.

I was on a plane the next morning and at mom's bedside by the afternoon. A few days later she had a grand mal seizure, and by the end of the week we had moved her back home with the help of hospice. Just one week more came the moment when I traded my role as power of attorney for that of executor. Tomorrow will be the half-year anniversary of the transition.

 

She lived a long life. I know how fortunate I am to have had that much time with her, to have been with her at the end, and for her end to have been in her own home as she had wished, as peaceful as we could make it. My grief is not exactly that she should have had more time in her life - not more years of increasing disability and sickness, for sure - but that she should have had more time in her life when I was more present, more respectful, more attentive to her as a person and not just my mom (but also my mom).

Some of you may know I wrote some things in her memory on Twitter; they are collected here in a Storify.

Thank you, dear Zuskateers, for reading this.

Z and Z-mom January 2007

Z-mom and Z, January 2007

 

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Rethinking the Normality of Attrition

(by Zuska) Feb 28 2013

There are few things so beloved by the professoriate as the faculty retreat – amirite? And the highlight of every faculty retreat is surely that hour when we gather and form small groups to contemplate How Diversity Is Making Us Stronger!!1!! These are nearly always well-planned, adroitly led, and very effective. In my dreams.

At one such gathering, the first exercise our group was given consisted of a sheet of paper with four photos: a young white man in casual clothing; a middle-aged white woman in a suit; a young African-American woman in a suit; and an old, bespectacled, gray-haired, bearded eminence in tweed jacket and tie. Our task: which of these people did we think was a professor, and why? Nobody wanted to go anywhere near that booby-trap. Nobody, that is, except the old, bespectacled, gray-haired eminence in a jacket in our group. He promptly pointed to the bearded dude and said “oh, he’s the professor. He just looks like one. Don’t you think that’s how a professor is supposed to look?” The diversity workshop leader happened to be standing next to our group at the moment and the rest of us cringed. Now, this professor was a really nice guy, and he said this without any guile. In retrospect I applaud him for saying what we were all thinking but self-censoring ourselves from saying. Gray-haired bearded dude did look like what we thought a professor should look like. The question was why did we, committed as we were to diversity, still think that? How could we come to see the others – especially the women – as equally valid images of the professoriate?  And what did all this mean for our work at the university?

Well, it should be no surprise, and should not make anyone feel guilty or ashamed, to realize that we carry these internalized stereotypical images of what a professor or scientist or engineer looks like. We daily bathe in the sea of stereotypes.  We may also carry a picture in our heads of what a successful STEM student looks like, without realizing it, and may make advising decisions based on that image rather than on the student’s interests, desires, and real potential.

The first step in interrupting the circuit is to interrogate the term “successful student”. Is a successful student one who makes top grades? One who rallies after a failure? One who doesn’t have a lot of distractions to get in the way of focusing on the degree? One who learns how to manage the non-negotiable constraints of life and still continue with their studies? One who goes on to a satisfying and successful STEM career post-graduation? One who takes their STEM degree as a springboard into another career direction? Is a successful student one whom we help to succeed?

Of course, I can tell you my anecdata about getting a D in calculus and going on to a successful STEM career despite a frosh advisor who suggested I switch out of engineering, and you can counter with your scores of advisees and your, as we will see, oh-so-unfortunate example of George.  And then I’ll walk over to my bookshelf and peruse the research.

The classic reference text on students switching out of STEM majors is, of course, Seymour and Hewitt’s Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave The Sciences. If you are a STEM professor, make yourself familiar with this book if you are not so already.  The book is an exhaustive presentation of the results of a three-year study of 335 students at seven four-year institutions of different type and location. The authors question the assumption that leaving, or switching, is natural or normal.

The revolution did not swing by anytime in the last 15 years so you can pretty much go with what the book says. Here’s the

most important single generalization arising from [the] analysis…switchers and non-switchers [were not] two different kinds of people. That is to say, [they did not] differ by individual attributes of performance, attitude, or behavior, to any degree sufficient to explain why one group left , and the other group stayed…What distinguished the survivors from those who left was the development of particular attitudes or coping strategies – both legitimate and illegitimate. Serendipity also played a part in persistence, often in the form of intervention by faculty at a critical point in the student’s academic or personal life. [emphasis mine] [p. 30]

It turns out that STEM is bleeding students, male and female, white students and students of color. Only, the bleed rates for females and students of color are slightly higher than for white males, so the overall impact of culling the herd is to reduce diversity. After all that hard work to recruit the best and brightest to your uni, and to get all those women and students of color to your doorstep! Such a shame. Well, what can you do, eh?

Seymour & Hewitt note, by the way, that inappropriate choice, underpreparedness, and overconfidence, while present for many students of color, are not sufficient factors to explain the higher switching rate of this group compared to white students. So one thing you can’t do is lay the burden for the problem on the students.  The extra difficulties that students of color face include: differences in ethnic cultural values and socialization; internalization of stereotypes; ethnic isolation and perception of racism; and inadequate program support.  It’s true. Your unis are not doing a good job of supporting students of color.

Seymour & Hewitt speak in their conclusion of a desire to marginalize the issue of wastage of students, given the consequences of taking seriously the loss of 40 to 60 percent of a group of students with above average ability.

Switching is not defined as a problem when it is believed to be caused, on the one hand, by wrong choices, underpreparation, lack of sufficient interest, ability, or hard work, or on the other, by the discovery of a passion for another discipline. Either way, there is little that faculty feel they can, or should, do about people who leave for such reasons. The difficulty about our data is that they support neither type of explanation for switching. We find no support for the hypothesis that switchers and non-switchers can be sufficiently distinguished in terms of high school preparation, performance scores, or effort expended...Nor do switchers neatly divide into those who are pushed out (by inappropriate choice of major, lower ability, poorer preparation, lower levels of interest, or unwillingness to work), and those who are pulled out (because they discover a vocation elsewhere)...[W]e posit that problems which arise from the structure of the educational experience and the culture of the discipline (as reflected in the attitudes and practices of S.M.E. faculty) make a much greater contribution to S.M.E. attrition than the individual inadequacies of students or the appeal of other majors. [p. 392]

Ouch. That hurts.

Students who wash up on your advising shores performing poorly in their major classes may be doing so for any number of reasons. In my opinion, if you let them get to their junior year and flunk a major course three times without an intervention, your uni is failing that student, and not by giving them a failing grade, if you follow me. Read the conclusions chapter of Seymour and Hewitt if you read no other part of it. There's more in there about the groups of students that are being lost from STEM, groups that faculty members might very much want to retain. And rethink your notions of the successful student and beneficial advice to switch majors. Even if you think you're doing the student a favor, is it really a good thing for your uni to continue recruiting, but not retaining, STEM students?

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