An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

August 29, 2010

Filed under: Blogging about Blogging — Tags: , , — Radical Scientist @ 10:56 pm

Seriously, if you don’t read Samia’s blog already, you really should poke your head over to check out her recent post “radicalism, love and the scientific temperament.” It’s a great, thoughtful, sometimes goofy meditation on how her personal need to understand things–people and proteins–drives her politics an her science. Here’s a taste:

Looking at one’s privilege head-on is painful, and I think we are all familiar with that reptilian urge to simply remove ourselves from the offending stimuli and pretend that shit didn’t just happen. But this doesn’t work in science, does it? The stuff you don’t know…is still out there. Not being known by you. TAUNTING YOU FROM JUST BEYOND GREAT GAPING MAW OF THE ABYSS WITH ITS NOT-KNOWNNESS. How satisfying is it to just leave the answers there, undiscovered? Well, it’s not.

See? I have nothing smart to talk about this week, so go read 49 Percent instead.

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August 18, 2010

Grad School Applications, Recommendations, and Mentoring

Filed under: Education — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Radical Scientist @ 4:38 pm

This post is part of 49 Percent’s zomg grad school!!!1 carnival. Go check out all the other lovely posts over there.

There is one part of the grad school application process that scares me shitless. I’ll stare down the GRE with gritty determination, and I can swallow my pride and lay claim to my lackluster GPA. But even thinking about having to ask for letters of recommendation makes me consider food service related career options instead.

I got my BS on the installment plan, over 8 years. Along the way, I worked more than I studied (out of necessity), and had a couple mental health flare ups, eventually culminating in a hella-awkward-at-the-time gender transition. I didn’t handle any of those issues as well as I should have. None of which is my professor’s fault (ok, maybe that one asshole who taught intro to calc), but let’s just say my best work was spread out across the years. Add in one mentor who retired and decided to move to a remote island with no phone, and a lot of giant lecture hall classes where the professors struggle to recognize more than a few of their students on sight, and, well, it’s a less than ideal situation.

I get that LOR’s serve a specific purpose in graduate admissions. Grad programs want students who work well with faculty, who have made a positive impression on at least a couple of their instructors, and they need some perspective other than the numbers on a transcript and the student’s own self-praise. And now that I’ve spent a couple years working in labs, I understand that any worthwhile professor or PI considers handing out recommendations for their protégées to be a standard part of the job. But no one told me that, at least not until I was…oh, 25 or so.

Some students can feel comfortable asking their professors or mentors to take the time to send out a half dozen recommendations for grad programs or internships. There are some academic environment factors–smaller classes and smaller departments breed familiarity. And some students will be outgoing no matter what barriers are thrown up in front of them, and some will always be shy.But at the broad generalities level, asking for recommendations is even more fucking terrifying for students who have grown up being told that the old guard of professors–white, male, straight, cis, and middle to upper-middle class–are their social betters.

Sometimes those fears are founded, often they’re not. But so long as they exist, they are one hurdle to the sciences (or any other discipline) becoming more welcoming and diverse. I know I, for one, am not looking forward to tracking down professors from several years ago, trying to get them to remember me, coming out to them (lest I get the wrong name on my rec letter), and then asking them to take the time to write letters to a number of schools and federal programs.

Meanwhile, my frat boy classmates have nothing to fear. They’re unafraid to ask, to send deadline reminders, to specify which of their most charming attributes they’d like highlighted. Even those who are, shall we say, on close terms with the gentleman’s C. They’ve spent their lives learning to navigate Old boy’s Networks; they seem to know what’s expected, and feel that they deserve to succeed.

I had a small honors class once where the professor did a wonderful job of pulling everyone in, and driving us to excel. Before handing out the final exams, he gave us a short speech about how lovely a class we’d been, that it had been a pleasure to  teach us, etc etc, but he ended by saying he’d be glad to write a recommendation or be a reference for any of us whenever we began applying to jobs or graduate programs. It was a revelation to me.

I understand that it’s unusual to have an entire class full of students you’d be willing to vouch for. But in my brief time in the science blogosphere thus far, I’ve seen a lot of great discussions on the value of mentoring, the importance of making science more ‘diverse’ in various ways, how to mentor, and so on. One thing that I haven’t heard (and I freely admit I may have just missed), is the value of offering recommendations. To student workers and interns, to students who excel in your classes, and to advisees. Look at each one, and think ‘would I be comfortable writing this student a warm recommendation, if they asked me to?’ If the answer is yes, for god’s sakes, tell them. Make sure they know you are willing to help them advance, and that that is part of what you do.

Sure, assertiveness and self confidence are good characteristics to develop. Ideally, students would have the self-confidence to a gruff senior professor for professional help based on their performance, rather than the professor’s friendliness or whether they feel inferior to their instructor.  But being unapproachable doesn’t weed out people who are bad at science, it weeds out people who are afraid to ask old white guys for favors. And that’s one more little thing that gives us a new generation of scientists no less homogeneous than the last.

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June 29, 2010

Science Still Can’t Solve Everything, and Other Breaking News

Filed under: Blogging about Blogging,feminism — Tags: , , , — Ethan @ 8:54 pm

Thanks to Samia for linking to this fabulous, somewhat disjointed series of ruminations from skeptifem about sexism and science. I think she’s neatly summed up a lot of what bothers me about the vilification of science for it’s own sexist ills–science is a morally neutral, but very damn handy set of tools for understanding the universe. Yeah, it’s been used for a lot of truly horrible ends, including holding down women in all sorts of ways. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing worthwhile there, and that feminism and science are inevitably at odds.  She puts it much more eloquently than I have here:

I personally think that the lack of science understanding that most people (especially girls) have in western countries is part of the damage of patriarchy. They kept all the tools for understanding the universe away from us, and some feminists decided that must mean that they aren’t worth anything at all. Nothing could be further from the truth. Science is the most reliable and most successful tool for understanding the nature of the universe around us, and I am sad that so many people have decided that it is worthless because men monopolized it. Men monopolized that whole deal where they get to not be raped or be owned as property too, you know. Science is one of the things we should reclaim as a part of the human experience- of curiosity and knowledge, of awe at the universe. Radfems who are anti science are missing the fuck out, and it depresses me.

I do think she take it a bit too far though in denigrating the idea that the non-formally-scientific ways of managing knowledge left to women are always less valid. This is a minor criticism, but hey, I hate to just throw up a link with IAWTC.
I agree that there has been some serious patriarchal baiting and switching to try to get women to lose interest in the tools men have traditionally hoarded. But I don’t know that the patriarchy-approved alternative is always inferior. Just as some things have been put down because they were the domain of women (novel writing  and computer programming, until men decided they wanted it, separating ‘crafts’ from art, etc) some pursuits have been unduly puffed up through their association with manliness.
Reading Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool  (yes, I’ve been on a Frank kick, ok?), I kept chuckling at the 50′s obsession with ‘scientific’ advertising. By which they mostly meant rote, boring and focused-grouped, honing design principles through sciency looking studies and then sticking with them at all costs.  From the sounds of it, ad design is just not an activity that lends itself well to quantification. I say this mostly because the folks who eventually abandoned strict design SOP’s fucking destroyed their competition. I’m loathe to use corporate revenues as a proxy for creative victory, but hell. That was the stated rubric for the ‘scientific’ camp, so we might as well do them the courtesy of judging their failure by their own rules.
And ultimately, why did that happen? Because they’d fallen away from seeing science as a tool set for answering certain types of questions, and had assumed it was a universal improvement over any other way of doing things. And frankly, there’s no obvious excuse for that, beyond fetishizing the ‘rational’ until it doesn’t make sense anymore. Some questions don’t have universal or objective answers. Science still has trouble dealing with unpredicatbility, let alone subjectivity. Standing back while others puff it up into more than it is just keeps us from using tools that do.
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June 14, 2010

Not just a favor post

Have I mentioned my friend Samia is awesome this week? Yes? Tought shit, I’m doing it again.

She has a new post up about broadening the whole women-in-science ‘debate.’ Moving past single lens approach, especially when that one perspective is white, straight, cis and married. She points out that the problem may not be getting a new generation of girls ‘interested’ in math or science so much as changing the atmosphere of those fields to welcome and respect women. I’m not gonna run the whole thing down, you should just read it.

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June 13, 2010

Unsolicited Publicity!

Filed under: Blogging about Blogging — Tags: , , — Ethan @ 8:16 pm

Samia at49 Percent was kind enough to put me up for this week’s Friday Blogaround at Shakesville. (I’m right under Tiger beatdown! OMG!) And that after also making exagerated statements of my awesomeness on her own blog.  In exchange, she has arm-wrestled me into promising to post more. So  I will, really this time. And you, whoever is reading this, should comment more. I hate this echo chamber thing.

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