Archive for the 'Manifestoes' category

Repost: Hard Science for Hard Men - Language and Meaning

One more vintage TSZ for the day, to kick off your weekend in style. First published on 8/24/2005, Hard Science For Hard Men - Language and Meaning was another post written in response to a commenter.  In this case the commenter complained about my choice of Marie Curie rather than, say,  Barbara McClintock in a blog post. I found the comment hilarious. But you know, the kind of hilarious that is really sad. I think it's useful for scientists to re-examine their use of the terms "hard science" and "soft skills" especially now when President Obama has so frequently been attacked by the right as "soft". Read on.


One of my commenters recently asked whether Barbara McClintock's science was not "hard" enough for me - was this why I had chosen to discuss Marie Curie instead?  (As if there are only the two to chose from, and no other women scientists in the world.  And as if there is a "correct" choice that needed to be made by me.) 

So interesting, this particular usage of the word "hard".  One hears this often in science and engineering circles - physics is a "hard" science; engineers today need "soft" skills as well as the traditional "hard" skills.  All this hard and soft talk makes a girl wonder...

Well, I can do no better at the moment than quote from myself and Cynthia Burack's article, "Telling Stories About Engineering:  Group Dynamics and Resistance to Diversity" in NWSA Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, Spring 2004, pp. 79-95. Here's some of what we had to say about this ubiquitous hard-obssession  in science and engineering land.

On the surface, hard refers to that which has mathematical content or involves the use of hands-on skill with technological equipment.  Soft refers to what is devoid [of these].  [But]...These uses of the modifiers hard and soft have no obvious connection to the skills they denote in engineering.  There is no strong intuitive connection between mathematics and "hardness" that those outside the science and engineering professions would make and that would affirm the usage as reflecting a common sense parallel.  However, connections between masculinity, virility, male sexuality, and hardness are culturally engrained, have unconscious emotional resonance, and are widely and immediately understood.  Likewise, the connection of softness with femininity...Neither are hard and soft understood as equivalent terms...hardness and softness are hierarchically ordered, with what is hard commanding greater respect and recognition than the soft.  It is no accident of language that enemy groups frequently express ridicule by describing each other as soft...The unspoken charge is of effeminacy - the de-sexing and degrading of men through metaphorical impotence.   

When my interrogator accused me of finding McClintock's science insufficiently hard, he used that term in a manner that has widely understood, shared - but implicit - cultural meaning.  Did I not think McClintock was man enough for me?  Was her science too effeminate, too flaccid?  Sigh.  Zuska thinks there are many, many wonderful things to be said about Barbara McClintock's fascinating work, but "hard" is not one of the words she would use.  But then, Zuska has never worried about whether she could get it up. 

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Repost: Why Are There No Great Women Scientists?

More vintage TSZ. First published on 8/19/2005, Why Are There No Great Women Scientists? was written in response to a commenter who suggested, basically, that there are only so many "stars". Institutions can't be expected to manufacture them. And what are gonna do if all the stars just happen to be white dudes. "What can you do if all the great scientists are men?" is related to the question "Why are there no great women scientists?" And that question has already been thoroughly addressed.  Read on:


...we immediately recognize this as a problem that has been solved, in Linda Nochlin's classic essay "Why Are There No Great Women Artists?"  (All quotes here are drawn from the version of Nochlin's essay printed in the 1971 Basic Books edition of "Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness" ed. V. Gornick & B. K. Moran.) 

As we proceed, just think "scientist" wherever you see "artist" and "science" for "art".  Let us consider the opening paragraph of Nochlin's tour de force:

"Why are there no great women artists?"  This question tolls reproachfully in the background of discussions of the so-called woman problem, causing men to shake their heads regretfully and women to grind their teeth in frustration.  Like so many other questions involved in the red-hot feminist controversy, it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer:  "There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness."  The assumptions lying behind such a question are varied in range and sophistication, running anywhere from "scientifically" proven demonstrations of the inability of human beings with wombs rather than penises to create anything significant, to relatively openminded wonderment that women, despite so many years of near-equality - and after all, a lot of men have had their disadvantages too - have still not achieved anything of major significance in the visual arts.

So then, the response:  re-discovering neglected heroines of the past; staking a claim for women's different approach to the subject at hand; and then, the next, more interesting stage.  Nochlin says this is when we begin to realize "to what extent our very consciousness of how things are in the world has been conditioned - and too often falsified - by the way the most important questions are posed."  Who is formulating these questions, she asks.  The woman problem is too uncomfortably similar in formulation for her to the Nazi phrasing "Jewish problem".   She opines: 

Obviously, for is always best to refer to the lamb problem in the interests of public relations, as well as for the good of the lupine conscience.  Indeed, in our time of instant communication, "problems" are rapidly formulated to rationalize the bad conscience of those with power.

Oh my, she does have a way with words.  Finally, she says:

...the Great Artist is conceived of as one who has genius; genius, in turn, is thought to be an atemporal and mysterious power somehow embedded in the person of the Great Artist...It is no accident that the whole crucial question of the conditions generally productive of great art has so rarely been investigated, or that attempts to investigate such general problems have, until fairly recently, been dismissed as unscholarly, too broad, or the province of some other discipline like sociology. 

So relevant for us today, as we are just beginning to explore what conditions are necessary to the production of a diverse science and engineering workforce!  Now all this is old hat to the PoMo humanities folks who have moved way beyond and would laugh that we are even discussing this.  But I have been trying to tell my friends over on the other side of the university for a long time that science and engineering are 30 years behind in the feminist revolution.

Anyway:  so, why no great women scientists?  why do all the great scientists happen to be white males?  You are asking the wrong questions, dudes. 

And if you still can't resist obnoxiously wagging Albert Einstein under our noses (as if his life should be reduced to an example), then may I offer for your consideration Marie Curie and her two Nobel Prizes?  When you can show me some guy who spent his days out in a shed stirring two tons of pitchblende in a cauldron over an open fire to isolate a tiny little dot of radium, and was at the same time completely responsible for the care and raising of two children, one of whom grew up to be a scientist and win her own Nobel Prize, then we'll talk. 

One response so far

Privilege Cranks

My theory, which is mine: it shows why Einstein was wrong! The earth is flat! Vaccines cause autism! Creationism is true and dinosaurs walked the earth with humans because the geological record is a lie! There is no climate change and if there is it is not caused by humans and if it is, it would be fantastic to warm things up a little - who doesn't love the beach!?! You and your sciency science will never convince me otherwise!

Who in the science blogosphere has not had a close encounter of a bothersome kind with cranks of one variety or another? Many of us dedicate our time to debunking these cranks and trying to insure that legitimate and helpful scientific information is readily available and accessible to the general public. Our esteemed repositories of scientific knowledge do not give air time to these cranks. You won't see Nature allocating  precious coverage to a flat-earther and their ramblings. You won't find creationism featured in a blog post on the SciAm blog network.

But the privilege cranks. Oh, the privilege cranks!  How tenderly do we suffer the little privilege cranks to come unto us! We forbid them not, for such is the kingdom of science.

They write their screeds, and screech their nonpologies, using the mouthpiece of Glamour Mags. They present their mind-numbingly boring nattering condescension as if a compilation of every bit of debunked privilege defense were a brilliant, flawless diamond they just unearthed - and they do it in an exclusive blog network!

They crank, and they crank, and they crank, and they crank. And no matter how much goddam debunking time and effort one part of the scientific community expends, still the cranks are able to spin their fables in the most highly regarded scientific circles. They even crank  journal articles - that are then used to support the crank commentary.

Don't bla to me about freedom of speech. The Discovery Institute wants "freedom of speech" in the scientific community too, but we don't have any problem telling them they are WRONG and are NOT doing science.

Scientific American, you loaned your imprimatur to a crank. Was it an accident? Or are the cranks running the show there?

I shouldn't have to fight the center. Stop treating privilege cranks like what they say is worth listening to. Let's at least agree to stop treating them like they are in a conversation about gender equity or affirmative action. You don't have a science conversation with anti-vaxxers or climate change denialists. You try to work against the damage they do. We work with each other to achieve an equitable world, and against the nutjobs to try and undo, block, or mitigate the damage they cause.

So let's call these nutjobs what they are: privilege cranks.

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

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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Rethinking the Normality of Attrition

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?

22 responses so far

Sexxay Inequality

Here's why that Business Insider article is a putrid festering load of bullcrap nobody needs or wants:

As I've previously blogged, Ruth Oldenziel (in Making Technology Masculine) told us how and why women who love technology require an explanation, but men who love technology are just being masculine.  She's the first! She's unusual! She's an exception! But she still makes cupcakes! Or looks hawt!

And as I blogged so many years ago the link will take forever to load from an ancient blogging platform, there's a difference when dudes go beefcake on a pinup calendar versus women scientists doing cheesy cheescake pinups to "encourage" young girls in science, however the hell that mechanism is supposed to work:

What's the difference between the Flame Calendar and the IT Screen Goddess calendar?  

  • Beefy lad with long hose = Very, very macho man = Very competent firefighter
  • Nekkid lady with rose petals = Male erection = Yeah baby, I'll give IT to you all night long

And that asymmetry, my children, is patriarchy in action.  And that's why posing for fancy whore calendars is not and will never be a positive step for women in science and engineering, at least until the revolution comes.

And that, in a nutshell, is it: Business Insider Sexy Scientists adds cache to any dude scientists on the list (wow, he's an awesome scientist! and also hawt!) while stripping away the women's integrity and worth, reducing them to sex objects (okay, let's look at these babes and see if they're really all that and would I want to hit that.) It doesn't matter if you make your Sexxay Hawt Scientists list a rainbow of diversity, and gender balanced. Sexifying scientists does not and cannot function equally for men and women.

Any enterprise that aims to cash in on tropes of female sexxay hawtness as a way of "promoting" science is doomed from the start. Men can be anything and also be sexxay as one of many attributes. Women are supposed to be sexxay objects, first and foremost as their entire being. Even when they are doing something else. Like science. Singling out a subset of women to be labeled Extra Hawt & Sciency Too! is hideously damaging, insulting, and - say it with me - puke-worthy.

How many times, for how many years, will I have to write this post? I know. Forever.

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Washington Trades and Labor Building

A few weeks ago I was in Washington, Pa - or what everyone in southwestern Pa refers to as "Little Washington". I've been there on numerous occasions but this was the first time I'd seen this building.

Washington Trades and Labor Building, Washington, PA

This is a closer view of the entrance.

Washington Trades and Labor Building entrance

The building now houses the Newman Center for Washington & Jefferson College on its second floor.

What had originally caught my eye, and led me to want to investigate more closely, was the stone slab on the lower left of the building front.

Inscribed stone slab on the front of Washington Trades and Labor Building

The inscription reads:

This granite is dedicated in memory of our brothers and sisters of Washington and Greene Counties who paid the ultimate price for employment many of which due solely to corporate greed and employer indifference to safety.

"Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living" Mary Harris 'Mother' Jones

"The present age handed over the workers, each alone and defenseless, to the unbridled greed of that a very few and exceedingly rich men had laid a yoke of almost slavery on the unnumbered masses of non-owning workers." Pope Leo XIII

It's difficult to describe how I felt when I read that. It was breathtaking to see such strong words chiseled in granite right there out in the open for everyone to see - right here in the age of Scott Walker and Mitt Romney.  It's not some very old monument either - it was dedicated in 2001.  I haven't been able to find any information about the building or the granite marker.  If anyone knows anything about either, I'd appreciate it if you'd leave a comment.

If the Republicans have their way, we'll be right back in the world these quotes describe - indeed we're heading there.  It is so discouraging to a child of a UMWA man, to see how beaten down unions are in the U.S. today.


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Personal Care Robots Are The Last Thing We Need

I just heard a story on NPR's All Things Considered that made me want to rip my hair out.  Personal robots!  You know you want one!  You don't need one, but that doesn't matter.  They will be made, you will learn to want them, and you'll be getting them and upgrading them just like your smart phone or iPad.  (Side note: If anyone can explain to me why the new robot thingies always have to be called "Rosie" I will be grateful.  Don't blame it on the Jetsons.  Where did the Jetsons come up with Rosie? Is it all just to mock the real Rosies, the riveters of WWII?)

We don't need robots to walk our dogs or wash our windows.  We don't need them to "fold towels, help elderly and disabled people with home care, and even fetch a beer".  For one thing, there's plenty enough beer-fetching going on in America's households as it is.  For another, if you can't be bothered to walk you own dog, or pay another human to do it for you when you are too busy, you shouldn't have a dog.  Robot dog walkers just take away one more job from young people.

But what REALLY hacks me off is the idea of robots designed to help the elderly and disabled with home care.  What the elderly and disabled need is more contact with other human beings, not less.  They don't need to be even more isolated in their homes than they already are.  They need people they can talk to and interact with and tell their stories to.  We need to pay decent living wages for this kind of care, to value it for the real importance it actually has, not sluff it off on the fantasy product of robotics researchers.

In any case, that bla bla about robots helping the elderly and disabled is just robotics engineers blowing smoke up your ass to keep their projects running.  Do you think something that currently costs $400,000 to build is being designed to help one of the most despised and neglected segments of our population? Where else is money and effort on this scale being poured into improving the lives of the elderly and the disabled?

Robots are going to be a hip thing for the youth culture, just like smart phones and iPads.  Things you could live without but are so cool to have, things that are always being upgraded.  Things that are costly.  The elderly and disabled, by and large, don't have extra cash to lay out on costly toys.  They aren't going to buy dog-walking, beer-fetching robots.

Redesigning existing home stock to be universally accessible, or making sure your local government buildings and restaurants really are accessible as they claim to be, or lobbying for better care for returning disabled veterans - none of this sounds as sexy as beer-toting personal robots, I am sure.  But all of it would be a a helluva lot more useful than one more fancy toy for your neighbor to envy.

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Are You A Mentor? Or A Dementor?

Contrary to popular belief, dementors are not just imaginary creatures who live in J. K. Rowling’s imagination and the Harry Potterverse.  Anyone can be a dementor, at any time, to anyone.  Most of us, given the choice, would likely rather be a mentor than a dementor, I think.  But can you recognize the signs – in yourself, or in another?  Herein I offer a wee guide.

Continue Reading »

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When to Tell? Who to Tell?

The most awesome Hermitage asked in a recent post

Ignoring the fact that knowing who to even complain to, and to what purpose, is not always clear, how bad does something have to be before you are compelled to take a stand? Should the criteria be severity, or simply how easy something is to prove? Should you always do the right thing, or should your career come first?

I wrote a long comment that sort of turned into a mini-post.  I'll reproduce it here. My answer was written assuming that what was being complained about was harassment or discrimination.  One main point I wanted to get across is this:  DO NOT WAIT until you have been harassed or discriminated against to try to figure out what you should do when you have been harassed or discriminated against.  Read and educate yourself about your school or workplace's relevant policies and procedures, understand how things would officially be handled and what that would imply for you.  Go talk to someone at the office of diversity or the equal opportunity office (where a complaint might be likely to be handled).  If your university has a women's studies department, ask them for resources to help you understand the situation women in science face in academia and how to respond to harassment and discrimination (tell them you don't need to read high theory, you need practical stuff about dealing with douchebags).  An informed woman scientist is one who is less likely to be harassed, and more likely to be able to aid a colleague who is dealing with a problem.

Okay, here's the rest of what I wrote over at Hermitage's place.  I encourage you to go read her post and the comments there, too.  Continue Reading »

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