An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

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.


August 4, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Radical Scientist @ 11:00 am

This is fucking awesome:

If you don’t read XKCD, you should. But I don’t need to tell you that, because you already do.  That is all.


August 3, 2010

Why Aren’t There More Women in Computer Science? Because They’re Just Not Into Your Bullshit

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Ethan @ 8:23 pm

Female Computer Scientist has a great post up called “Women in CS: It’s not Nature, it’s Culture” in which she points out that the U.S.’s piss-poor recruitment of female students into university computer science programs is far from universal–many countries have gender parity, and in some, computer science is a female-dominated field. She offers up 5 specific suggestions on what US universities can do to fix this, all of which boil down to “So, please – stop mansplaining and start doing.”

I dated a math/CS double major toward the end of her undergrad years. She’s exceptionally good at shooting down sexist dickheads, but even so, she same home with some nerd-douche horror stories.* She’d occasionally refer offhandedly to ‘the other girl’ in her classes. The one. In a school with 30,000+ students. If I’d had to deal with that kind of environment just to get a freaking BS, I’d have gone with a less dudebro heavy program. Like agriculture. Or poultry science.

*Which I’m gonna keep to myself, since I haven’t asked if I could use her college unpleasant experiences as blogfodder.


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.

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.


April 25, 2010

Ummm, what’s wrong with this picture?

Filed under: DIY,gender — Tags: , , , , — Ethan @ 10:10 pm

I knit. A lot. I make gifts for people I care about, but mostly I knit for myself. Finding patterns I like, that will fit me well, is always a challenge. So I was excited to see Man Made DIY review Knits Men Want,  a whole book full of patterns I might potentially want, photographed by knitting heartthrob Jared Flood. To be clear, I haven’t read it yet; I’m about to go off on a tear on general principle, because the thing that bothers me about this is something that has happened over and over again: a perfectly good, useful craft book tries to sell itself with some gender-retrograde, Men-Are-From-Mars bullshit.

It is surprisingly hard to find good collection of knitting patterns for guy’s clothes– most general-purpose knitting books will be 3/4 to 7/8 women’s clothes, with a sweater or two and some sock recommendations tucked in for the dudes. I’m not very gender-policy about my clothes, but I find that patterns aimed more at women can’t be made to fit me well. So, another halfway-decent collection on patterns for guys clothes is a good thing; I don’t want to have to buy 10 books to get 10 patterns I’d want to make for myself.  Judging this book solely on it’s cover and the short review I linked, the technical content looks pretty great. The piece featured on the cover looks like something I’d wear, and the review suggest the patterns come with plenty of detail for adjusting them to fit across a broad range of sizes and style preferences. And anything Jared Flood does is probably pretty great.

But the book isn’t aimed at men. It’s aimed at women, with the subtitle “The Ten Rules Every Woman Should Know Before Knitting for a Man.” I can’t stand the weird sexism & heterosexism here. Why should women be doing all the manly-sweater-making? I resent the implication that women should be hand-knitting sweaters for me. The women in my life have better things to do with their time, like having a life, being more successful than me, and making sweaters for themselves. Shouldn’t dudes make their own damn sweaters?

Like I said, I wouldn’t be so pissed if this were a one-off oddity, a book aimed at a specific niche, but it’s not. Based on my extensive survey of bookstores and  knitting specialty stores across the southeast, (ahem) there are only maybe 6 or so books in print that focus on knitting menswear. One is composed entirely of men’s sweaters with matching dog sweaters, so we’ll rule it right out. Out of the remaining 5-ish, at least one other (the otherwise handy Son of Stitch N’ Bitch) assumes a female reader, looking to make something nice for her husband/boyfriend. That book does a fair amount of what I’m accusing this of sight-unseen–gender-policing (don’t make your boyfriend something brightly colored, even if he goes to the store with you and picks out a multicolor Noro yarn!),disguising naratives that push women to cater to men as empowering ( like ‘those silly boys, if you don’t hand-knit them camelhair socks, they’ll never get themselves nice things’), and disguising  general-purpose, gender-neutral good advice as some deep insight into the mysteries of the Opposite Sex (for anyone wanting a big squishy sweater they can wear over other layers, it’s a good idea to measure a sweater they already like than to measure their body and guess where to add room)

To be clear, knitting is mostly a women’s hobby. I’m not arguing to the contrary; I get annoyed pretty quickly with guys who want the whole subculture to butch up just so they can feel comfortable. But most of the people I’ve met who really want whole books full of quality men’s patterns are queer men–we’re more likely to need the quantity of options, to have lots to chose from to make things for ourselves and still have new styles to use for the odd gift to partners, friends and family.  Given that audience, why posit such a Good Housekeeping-esque world where highly skilled crafters* need extra special help to make a series of tubes, just so they don’t injure their husband’s delicate masculinity with their lady-hobbies?

* I don’t know how difficult the patterns are in this book, but it does take much more skill and experience in general to take on a fitted women’s sweater than the looser, squarer cuts and simpler textures usually aimed at men.


June 6, 2008

Learn Calculus, Smash Patriarchy: Gender Equality Linked to Math Skills

Filed under: feminism,gender — Tags: , , , — Ethan @ 5:50 pm

Check out this Ars Technica post about a recent worldwide study on teenagers math and verbal skills:

It’s widely recognized that, in the US at least, there’s a gender gap in performance on tests of basic skills: boys tend to perform better at math, while girls get superior reading scores. It has been suggested that these gaps are the result of biological differences, as males tend to have better spatial reasoning skills and females better word recall. But a new study suggests that, when it comes to math, we can forget biology, as social equality seems to play a dominant role in test scores.

Students from 40 countries took the same math and reading test, and girls and boys average scores in each country were compared against an index of women’s social equality. On the whole, girls outscored boys on the reading test, and boys outscored girls on the math bits. But the difference in math scores was closely linked to women’s status within each country:

The researchers, noted, however, that the math gap wasn’t consistent between countries. For example, it was nearly twice as large as the average in Turkey, while Icelandic girls outscored males by roughly 2 percent. The general pattern of these differences suggested to the authors that the performance differences correlated with the status of women. The authors of the study built a composite score that reflected the gender equality of the countries based on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, data extracted from the World Values Surveys, measures of female political participation, and measures of the economic significance of females.

Go Iceland!* The article gets oddly bogged down worrying that further advances in women’s status will eventually render men illiterate (I exaggerate, but it was strange), as the margin by which girls outscored boys in reading comp. also widened with increased social equality. So maybe you should just grab a copy of the current issue of Science instead, and read about it for yourself.

Full Disclosure: I have some family from Iceland, but I’d congratulate them anyway.


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