Thursday, April 30, 2009

Is it time to end the university as we know it?

(Herein I offer a round-up of responses to Mark Taylor's recent Op-Ed in the NYT. I'm still processing his opinions and will have more to say soon. This post also appears over at BlogHer.)

This past weekend, I considered a critique of universities as abusive employers and suggested that American universities are, in some ways, profoundly broken. Mark Taylor, chair of the religious studies department at Columbia University, takes this critique to its (il)logical conclusion, calling for us to "End the University as We Know It." He begins with this analogy:

Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).

Taylor is a fan of interdisciplinarity. He calls for universities to

Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

Among his other recommendations:

  • Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs.

  • Increase collaboration among institutions.

  • Transform the traditional dissertation.

  • Expand the range of professional options for graduate students.

  • Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure.

Click through to the article to read the reasons behind his recommendations, which attracted 437 comments before the editors closed the comment thread. Some comments were appreciative, while others--not so much. Quipped one reader, "Go abolish your own department."

A discussion broke out among readers as to the extent universities should be responsive to market forces, and particularly those of industries that want undergraduates prepared with the skills necessary to join their particular workforces. In my view, universities are where undergraduates develop their critical and creative thinking skills. Undergraduates may enter college thinking they're training for a particular industry, but universities must prepare them instead for work in any industry. Universities should be treating graduate students much the same way; all too often, graduate students, especially in the humanities and social sciences, are trained to be faculty. They hone their skills for a job market that is beyond competitive--it is brutal, with hundreds of applicants sometimes jockeying for the same position.

Bloggers of course have had plenty to say. (As do I, but I'm going to let a round-up stand in for my own still-garbled thinking on Taylor's suggestions.)

Marc Bousquet offers perhaps the most searing critique of the op-ed:

The piece is hilariously out of touch — noting the rise of adjunct labor, the Columbia philosopher of religion and author of 20 books wrings his hands that per-course pay is “as low as” $5,000 dollars a class.


Reality? Annual income for many adjuncts is about $5,000 dollars a year. On pay that can be lower than a grand per class.

They’re on food stamps.

But sure, you’re right. The problem is that we need to end tenure. When we end tenure, the market will insure that these folks are paid fairly, that persons with Ph.D.’s will be able to work for those wages.

Oh, crap, wait. As anyone actually paying attention has observed, we’ve ALREADY ended tenure. With the overwhelming majority of faculty off the tenure track, and most of teaching work being done by them, by students, and professional staff, tenured appointments are basically the privilege of a) a retiring generation b) grant-getters and c) the candidate pool for administration.

Dean Dad brings an administrator's perspective to the article:

Yes, the existing structures are clunky and overtaxed and frequently asinine. They survive because they address certain problems. The way around them is not to wish those problems away or to postulate a world in which every college is modeled on a graduate seminar at Columbia. It's to come up with alternatives that solve those problems better. Prof. Taylor's model could be a lot of fun on a very small scale, like a think tank. But as a blueprint for higher ed across America, it's a farce.

The reality of higher ed in America is mobility. People move from one institution to another all the time. We've developed an admittedly frustrating common language to make that kind of movement possible. Replacing that common language with a babel of tongues is not a serious answer, and replacing what little common knowledge that clusters of scholars share – canons or classics or traditions – with whatever seems convenient at the time would only make matters worse. Disciplines are arbitrary and flawed, but random fads are even worse. And incompatible random fads at different institutions would be disastrous.

Laura Blankenship (AKA Geeky Mom) of Emerging Technologies Consulting sees some possibility in Taylor's vision of interdisciplinary undergraduate collaborations:

I also see what a fabulous learning experience this was for students. I could envision parallel systems here, where students are required to take courses that are interdisciplinary, but still have majors. And these courses could be centered around a common theme, so that there’s a common language for the students, but it would be good to have the math majors talking to the English majors.

Cathy Davidson of he Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) sees Taylor's piece as short-sighted, but only in that he lacks a sense of recent history:

My one regret is that it is a bit Rip Van Winklish in not recognizing that HASTAC and many other organizations dedicated to changing institutions of learning have been working on this for decades. Change is happening everywhere around him--although, sadly, not so much in the elite humanities departments that he is familiar with.

Michael Campana points out other collaborations envisioned by Taylor that are already taking place within water resources programs at universities around the U.S.

Joseph Shahadi takes issue with Taylor's call to abolish tenure and impose mandatory retirement:

While impossible-to-fire tenured Professors are easy targets, the cost to students incurred by forcing their most experienced professors into retirement would be incalculable. Perhaps my judgment is colored by my arguably atypical experience, but rather than withdrawing into their academic dotage the tenured professors I studied with were dynamically involved with their students and passionate about teaching.

After reading the Taylor article and others of its ilk, Historiann wonders if members of any other industry as regularly ridicule their profession in the pages of the New York Times. She comments,

Taylor sure sounds like a department chair bucking for dean: most of his suggestions will cost universities almost nothing because they depend mostly on–wait for it!–volunteer faculty labor. Who else is going to “restructure the curriculum,” “increase collaboration among institutions,” “transform the traditional dissertation,” and “expand the range of professional options for graduate students?” Good luck getting faculty to do that after you abolish tenure–most of us are going to be sure to look out for Number One when that happens, so you can kiss all of our committee work good-bye! (Won’t you miss all of those senior faculty then? “Old farts” with tenure sure are useful for lots and lots of committee work.) But, whoever does the work, Taylor’s suggestions are just collections of fashionable buzzwords about “the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches,” and preparing students “to adapt to a constantly changing world.”

I heart Historiann.

After reading her comments, I suspect Oona Eisenstadt will also become a new favorite of mine:

An enormously successful academic, aged 64, Taylor wants to abolish the academy at exactly the point where he’s got from it everything he can get. He is, like, sooo over the university; therefore the university is, like, sooo over. Ego anyone? But there’s more. Because in one instance only might Taylor not quite be finished with the academy, namely if it falls. If the called for apocalypse does take place, Taylor will be one of its high priests. He’s setting himself up for real power here. Already vastly famous within the power structure that exists, he can spring to further fame only on its ruins.


If Taylor had told the university to go to hell when he was a rising academic of 35, I might have given him some respect.

Bobba Lynx of Cranky in Academe takes issue with both Taylor and Erin O'Connor's praise of his article:

I give higher ed more credit: it is a smart animal and can transform itself without the pseudo-radical provocation from the likes of Prof. Taylor. It is here that institutions themselves must be more flexible, and open to the scholarship and kinds of classes they make possible; this may be generational, and seems to already be happening. Shi[f]t happens, and before Profs. O'Connor and Taylor and their ilk go scrambling in peri-apocalyptic survival mode, offering human sacrifices in hopes of appeasing forces over which they sense only minimal ---if any--- control, let's really get at that thought experiment: the larger questions that are diminished by the defensive mentality exhibited in Taylor's piece. The idea that only some radical reconfiguring will save us still has academia stranded on its on island, trying to build its own boat in order to land on the same shore. The larger and more compelling issues are the ones that become demonic forces in O&T species' mind (think of their initials as standing for "zero tenure"): in what kind of a society do we want to live ? If the academy becomes merely reactive instead of constructive, it will ---or has--- lost a great deal of its function in society.

Michael Bérubé uses the Taylor article as an excuse to write, very thoughtfully I think, about the difference between disciplines and departments:

[T]he next time someone complains about the constraints imposed by disciplines, ask yourself (or them!) whether they’re not really complaining about the constraints of departments. And the next time someone claims to be post-disciplinary or anti-disciplinary, ask yourself (but probably not them!) what it would sound like to be “post-intellectual traditions” or “anti-intellectual traditions.”

Natalia Cicere takes this critique a step further, saying bluntly that Taylor "confuses interdisciplinarity with adisciplinarity."

Your thoughts? Which of Taylor's suggestions, if any, speak to you? Which are the crackpot divagations of, to borrow Historiann's term, an old fart?

Monday, April 27, 2009

A book review and giveaway in which I confess I'm ready to move on to (what may seem to you to be) weirder things

Many months ago, I volunteered, via an invitation on Pamela Slim's blog, to serve on an informal advisory board while she drafted her book (due in stores on April 30) Escape from Cubicle Nation. Periodically she would send out e-mails with insightful questions asking for anecdotes about a time when something in our lives as corporate drones went off the rails, or how we made our own escapes from cubicle nation. I never felt quite ready to give Pam an answer to any of these questions because I hadn't really worked for a big corporation, though I certainly have spent time in cubicles and their equivalents. I escaped, for many years, from cubicle nation by going to graduate school, which I thought would forever secure my release from office dronedom.

As the months passed, it became clear that much of what Pam was writing was geared at people who already had experienced some success and garnered some respect in their corners of corporate America and were wondering if they were crazy for thinking it was time to jump ship to, in one of Pam's examples, a doggy daycare business. I began to suspect I might not be in her target audience.

So I remained silent, and thus I felt a bit guilty when Pam sent a signed hardback copy of the book to me, as she did to all members of the book's advisory board. But as soon as I cracked open the book, I knew, finally, that I am--as are many of you, I suspect--the implied readership of Escape from Cubicle Nation.

Those of us in higher ed have known for a long time that the research university is in bed with corporate interests. (For an excellent overview of this phenomenon, see "The Kept University" in the March 2000 Atlantic Monthly.) And those of us who have worked as faculty or staff (but oh, especially as staff) at universities, or who have read Dean Dad's blog for any length of time, know that the university itself is increasingly organized along corporate lines. We know what it's like to be managed, to not be listened to, to be hired on one pretense and then asked to do something else entirely, thanks to that "and other duties as assigned" clause in our job descriptions. Increasingly, as universities slash their budgets, we're learning what really matters to them. (Hint: it isn't teaching, and it isn't the arts, humanities, and cultural studies.)

I'm fortunate to have a position among truly excellent peers in a teaching center whose (retiring!) director shields us, I suspect, from some of the mandates from above. As his time with our center wanes, I'm growing increasingly nervous about what will happen to our center's mission--and with good reason, as no one has invited anyone from our center to participate in the search for a new director (each director is a Senate faculty member and serves a three-year term). Some directors are very laissez-faire, letting the staff develop programs as we see fit, while others are more interventionist. In the case of our current brilliant director, the intervention has been much appreciated, but I fear I will not enjoy the intervention so much when it becomes managerial. Currently, I have a good deal of freedom to design and implement programs and communications for the center, as long as the programs don't cost us anything beyond my salary and perhaps a few hours' time from our administrative staff.

But, as I've said before: In December, we're literally moving from our lovely windowless basement offices to cubes in a 50-year-old "temporary" building/tin shed. We'll be sharing two big cube farms with staff from related units (synergy!), and in each room there will be about 15 people, with one "hotelling" office we can reserve for when we need to have a private conversation. You can imagine how well this plan is going to work. . .

Add to this disappointment my experience of the job falling through at Awesome University. From what I can suss out, there was a difference of opinion between the faculty and staff on the search committee and the administration, with the administration winning, as administrations tend to do. So even at Awesome University, things can suck. Yay.

Anyway, back to Pam's book. I knew from the moment I saw such chapter titles and section headings as "If It Is So Bad, Then Why Am I Afraid to Leave?" and "I Am 35, Divorced, and Live in a Van Down by the River" that Pam was speaking to my fears. After all, I worked damn hard for my Ph.D., and I desperately wanted that tenure-track faculty job. When I didn't get it, and I had to settle for the consolation prize of adjuncting or a staff position, when I accepted my first staff position (as an instructional technologist) I felt that at least I was applying my knowledge and skills in the arena where they were most respected and perhaps needed. I also felt grateful for being able to stay at the university where I had already cultivated a broad network of contacts among faculty and staff.

Why the hell would I want to move on to something else? (Aside from the fact that my therapist pointed out I might be making twice as much money if I were working in private industry.) I have health insurance, decent (by university staff standards) pay, and I believe, to some extent, in the mission of higher education--insofar as it advances liberal arts thinking and enriches community life.

I'm not crazy

Pam's book tells me I'm not crazy. Which--although I appreciate my friends' moral support when I express my dissatisfaction--is such a relief to hear from an objective outsider.

My therapist cautioned me today that I may be still mourning the loss of the opportunity at Awesome University and therefore in peril of investing too much hope into Pam's book.

Still, I keep telling myself: I'm not crazy. I'm not crazy. I'm not crazy.

I like my job, but I don't belong at this university any more.

I'm not sure if there is an organization where I belong.

This frightens the bejeebus out of me.

It's really hard to admit to academics and to my family of educators that I have an entrepreneurial streak. I believe in Creative Commons, I believe in open source, I believe in open educational resources--I believe, in short, in all that great stuff that so often gets set up as the opposite of the marketplace and of the dreaded "monetization."

But at the same time I desperately want to find a way to "monetize" what I know in the form of services and, yes, products I might provide. I feel I could have an impact on far greater numbers of people by working outside of the academy than I do as a staff member inside of it. (Note: by staff, I mean "not tenure-track faculty.")


I also know that I'm in no position, financially speaking, to quit my current job.

My options, as I see them, are these, each of which is mutually exclusive from the other because of time constraints:

- Buck up and deal, and continue to adjunct elsewhere so that I can (a) keep my teaching skills sharp and (b) make some extra cash.

- Cut down pretty dramatically on my living expenses so that I can cut back on my working hours a little bit. Rededicate myself to research, try to get a book contract from my dissertation, and throw myself back on the (incredibly depressing) academic job market in the next year or two in the hopes of getting a tenure-track job at a small liberal arts college.

- Again, cut down on my living expenses so that I can cut back on my working hours. Experiment with creating products and services on the side, related (and I don't want to disclose too much here, both out of an embarrassment I'm still trying to overcome--and I think Pam's book will help more with that--and out of a desire not to reveal my idea to potential competitors) to K-16 education and/or museums.

All of this is tempered, of course, by Mr. Trillwing's employment in the increasingly perilous newspaper industry and his desire to move over to life coaching and writing, both of which he's very, very good at.

Back to the book

I haven't read all the way through Escape from Cubicle Nation yet, but I will tell you that I'm looking forward to chapter 11, "Test Often and Fail Fast: The Art of Prototypes and Samples." The chapter title appeals to me as a teacher, as isn't teaching often about prototyping and testing and, often, failing and learning from our mistakes? But it also addresses some fears that are, I'm sure, familiar to academics:
  • What if it doesn't turn out the way you had imagined?
  • What if no one likes it?
  • What if no one buys it?
  • What if someone else does it better?
  • What if you have been wasting your time and should have done something else?
Pam's book talks us through these fears and hesitations--and once we've convinced ourselves that what we want to pursue is worthwhile, she offers a chapter titled "Dealing with Your Friends and Family."

Book Giveaway

The book is definitely worth checking out. And, as it happens, I have a second signed copy because Pam offered a "buy one, get a second signed copy free" deal, and my second signed copy arrived the same day as my free advisory board copy.

I want to give this second copy away to an academic or (recently) former academic who, like me, feels he or she is at (or approaching) a transition point or (let's call it what it is) a crisis of conscience.

To get this second signed copy of the book, you need to do the following:

Share with me your own thinking on this topic of moving to a new place within or away from academia, and why you think Pam's book might help you. Address in particular why you think a book that is pro-entrepreneurialism would be a worthwhile resource.

You can share your story in one of three ways:

1. Blog it, then leave a link to your post in the comments of this one.

2. Leave your story in a comment on this post.

3. Send me your story in an e-mail to trillwing -at- gmail -dot- com. I understand some of you aren't as eager as I am to come out of the entrepreneurial closet, so I won't reveal your name or identifying details if you contact me in this manner.

I'll be picking the winner on Friday, May 8 and either announcing the winner on my blog or contacting the person privately, as appropriate.

Please blog and tweet about this giveaway as the spirit moves you. I'd love to hear from fellow academics (and former academics) what you're thinking about where you are and where you're going.

Obi likes to help

Mr. Trillwing and our "new" (as of last July) dog Obi have a tenuous relationship at best, in that Obi really wants Mr. T to like him, and yet Obi keeps misbehaving in ways that keep Mr. T from wholeheartedly embracing the dog as his own.

Obi tries hard. Here he is trying to help Mr. T with his physical therapy exercises:

Assorted weirdnesses

Weirdness the first: Lucas has scarlet fever. No, I am not making that up. Yes, he will be OK. But WTF. (Thank goodness we live in an age of antibiotics.)

Weirdness the second: Mr. Trillwing v. the kite:

And yes, that is me cackling wildly in the background near the end of the video.

Feel free to go comment about the incident on his blog.

Weirdness the third: Today my therapist referred to me as her "Leonardo da Vinci patient." I'm trying to figure out if that's a promotion or demotion from "Renaissance woman." (I'm thinking there need to be therapists who specialize in overachievers because seriously, my therapists always seem to become fans as much as elucidators, and I assure you I'm not inflating my deeds during the sessions.) Also, she tells me she is forever in my debt because I introduced her to the TV show Life. I'm here to help.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Can you hear me now?

In another sign of the institutional apocalypse, yesterday I heard this story from a faculty member in the sciences:
I called [Professor Bob Z] today and got the message that his phone had been disconnected. So I called the department office to ask what his new number was. And the department admin told me that many of the faculty phones in HArCS* had been disconnected to save money. (The science prof widens her eyes and drops her jaw in disbelief.) So I asked how I could reach him. And she says, "His office is just down the hall. I could stick my head into the hallway and call his name, and if he's here, he'll hear me."

So I tweeted this, and the news was soon confirmed via Twitter by a colleague in a humanities department, who wrote (sarcastically), "Yup. it's true. thank goodness twitter is free. we're all moving to twitter."

No phones in faculty offices. (Safety first! It's especially funny because on Thursday the campus tested the "Warn Me" emergency system by leaving--you guessed it--voicemail messages on all campus phones.) So here's the next question: If you're faculty, would you give your cell number to your students? (Especially knowing that there are many places on campus that still don't get cell service, especially the ubiquitous tin-can "temporary" buildings from the 60s?)

Next up: Pay-per-e-mail internet service, à la 1994?

*Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Food for thought

In a column in today's New York Times, Pamela Slim of Escape from Cubicle Nation shares this insight:

Real creative urges, those we are meant to express, don’t go away. If ignored, they bother us, affect our health, fester and eventually turn us into the living dead.

That's going up on my office wall as I calculate my next moves.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Wrestling with my demons

Something you may not know: There's a reason this blog ranks #1 in Google for the exact phrase "depression in academia."

Some of you already know that I am an exceptionally high functioning depressive, thanks to antidepressants and a desire not to embarrass myself too horribly at work or in school. I know the depression is there, kind of like the spider I let live in the houseplants or behind the washing machine because I suspect its presence has some utility, but most of the time it doesn't bother me.

Spider photo by Opo Terser, and used under a Creative Commons license

Every once in a while, though, the spider decides to jump out of its hidey hole and onto my skin. You know, where spiders totally do not belong. It happens a couple times a year, but not like clockwork. I never know when I'm going to have a bad week, in large part because it seems to be as much chemically triggered as environmentally.

Today I indulged myself in a nap that was, Mr. Trillwing pointed out, likely inspired by depression, which has been exacerbated by the still-giant stack of papers on which I've been commenting for the past few weeks. These papers, portions of M.A. theses, are not in general terribly written, but they are long, a chapter or two from each student, which means 15-60 pages from each of 14 students. They're taking me a lot longer than usual. Usually it takes me no longer than half an hour to read a 15-page paper. These are taking hours each because they need so many comments and so much mental energy from me--after all, these are not 6-10 page undergrad papers; they are sustained works, the kind I'm more used to writing or reading than I am commenting on. I should probably remind you that this is work I do on top of my full-time job at the teaching center. . .

Anyway, depression plus paper grading always equals a deeper depression. Throw in house cleaning, food prep, and yard grooming for tomorrow's BBQ guests, and I just want to crawl into bed and forget about the world awhile. I feel so tired, so apathetic, and yet so guilty about not wanting to do anything, because the result looks an awful lot like chronic disorganization and procrastination.

In addition to making me not want to do any work at all, the depression also makes me tunnel inward and backward. I gaze all the way back to about third grade, when I began to become aware of the metaphorical spiders in my mental houseplants. Yet I didn't get any kind of treatment until a while after I met Mr. Trillwing; he pushed me to address the problem in January 2001, when I was 25 years old.* And for the most part, since then, things have been fine.

But I still lament missed opportunities. Many colleagues marvel at my productivity, even though I don't feel productive at all. I often wonder what my life would have been like had I not been depressed. I'll never know, unfortunately, so I work with what I have.

This week, I'm living with spiders.

*Yes, I was born in June 1975; do the math. I'm younger than most people suspect. Surprise! I'm dowdy and well-spoken.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Lucas has a camera

Last night Lucas was playing with an old, broken digital camera of mine, enjoying setting off the flash. So today Mr. Trillwing took Lucas to Ritz Camera and picked up a $29 3.1 megapixel camera. The boy is crazy about it, and he's already becoming quite the autoethnographer. We have photos of Mommy, Daddy, the potty, the toilet, and many blurry photos of the dog.

Here are two favorites:

Could Title IX help women in science as well as women athletes?

This is my 701st post here at The Clutter Museum, and it's a doozy. It's also cross-posted at BlogHer.

The year my aunt Joan graduated from high school, Congress passed the Education Amendments of 1972, the most famous section of which may be Title IX, which sought, among other goals, to guarantee high school and college athletes like Joan had the same opportunities as their male counterparts. For Joan, it worked well. By 1976, she had earned her first Olympic medal in rowing, the first year women were allowed to compete in the Olympics. The women in my family--my younger aunt Carol as well as my sister Stacy--are athletes who have benefited tremendously from Title IX during high school and beyond.

Which makes me wonder: What if Title IX, which was intended to cover all aspects of education--

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

--had been applied more rigorously to science education when we all were girls and young women? Might I have chosen the more lucrative Ph.D. in materials science over my unmarketable doctorate in cultural studies?

Last June, then-candidate Barack Obama noted,

Thirty-six years ago today, America took a bold step forward on the long march toward justice and equality when Congress enacted Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, banning gender discrimination in all education programs that receive federal money. When Title IX was passed, many schools had formal or informal policies that suggested no young women need apply. High school girls were routinely barred from vocational education classes. Girls who wanted to play sports were told it was too dangerous, too unfeminine.

In an October 2008 response to questions posed by the Association of Women in Science, Obama wrote (PDF),

Women are significantly underrepresented in the STEM workforce, and especially in the leadership positions in research and academia. We need women in leadership roles both for their contribution and for the message of encouragement and opportunity that their presence sends to our daughters. We support a range of proactive measures that will open opportunities in science to women, such as requiring minority and female representation on government panels developing innovation and competitiveness strategies, and establishing mentoring programs to support women and underrepresented groups in STEM education programs ­ two measures that I helped pass as part of the America COMPETES Act. We also support improved educational opportunities for all students, increased responsibilities and accountability for those receiving federal research funding, equitable enforcement of existing laws such as Title IX, continuation and strengthening of programs aimed at broader engagement in the STEM disciplines, full funding for the America COMPETES Act, and increased funding for the National Institutes of Health.

Yesterday, ethicist, philosopher, and boys' rights activist Christina Hoff Sommers mocked Obama's stance when in a Washington Post op-ed she wrote, "What's good for women's basketball will be good for nuclear physics."

Hoff Sommers opines that feminists unfairly criticized then-Harvard president Larry Summers, who, in Hoff Sommers's telling, "drew a correlation between the number of women in the sciences and gender differences implied in math and science test data." In reality, Larry Summers's comments transcended such observation. In January 2005, Summers expressed the opinion that "on many different human attributes—height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability--there is relatively clear evidence that. . .there is a difference in the standard deviation and variability of a male and a female population." He argued that there are some traits, such as the desire to nurture, that are inherently female, and others that are inherently male, such as a talent for science. Summers said that "the differing variances," coupled with women’s failure to work the 80-hour weeks required to secure high-profile positions in American science, accounted for women’s equal lack of representation in the scientific workforce. Summers insinuated as well that not only are women with children not able to work such hours, but also that even the most intelligent women show a disinclination "to do high-powered intense work."

Summers later apologized for his comments, writing that "The many compelling e-mails and calls that I have received have made vivid the very real barriers faced by women in pursuing scientific and other academic careers. They have also powerfully underscored the imperative of providing strong and unequivocal encouragement to girls and young women interested in science."

Hoff Sommers closes her article with this warning and question:

Activist leaders of the Title IX campaign are untroubled by this question. Some seem to relish the idea of starkly disrupting what they regard as the excessively male and competitive culture of academic science. American scientific excellence, though, is an invaluable and irreplaceable resource. The fields that will be most affected -- math, engineering, physics and computer science -- are vital to the economy and national defense. Is it wise, to say nothing of urgent, for the president and Congress to impose an untested, undebated gender parity policy at this time?

(Want more? Hoff Sommers also wrote about this issue last fall.)

Here's my primary problem with Hoff Sommers's analysis: It assumes women's participation in science dilutes, rather than enriches and challenges (and thereby strengthens), scientific research and endeavor. Yet in those sciences where women have achieved parity, and even in pockets of male-dominated sciences where women have made inroads, women have pushed the fields forward. Jane Gooddall, Biruté Galdikas, and Dian Fossey changed the way primatologists studied their subject, pushing for long-term field studies over observation of primates in captivity. Alice Eastwood, Agnes Chase, and other women raised the profile of, and blazed new paths for, women in scientific botany and horticulture. Botany has never been the same (thank goodness). Margaret Morse Nice was the first to conceptualize territoriality in bird nesting, and according to Margaret Rossiter's book Women Scientists in America, Nice's own experiences with child-rearing strongly influenced her as she founded the field of animal behavior studies (vol. 1, p. 276). In design engineering, Joyce Fletcher has documented in her book Disappearing Acts that women scientists tend to be mutually empowering with both men and women workers--a sharp contrast to all the ethnographies, anecdotes, and popular depictions of science that emphasize its competitive nature and the individual heroism of its most famously successful (read: male) practitioners.

If you need more evidence, check out both volumes of Rossiter's fabulous study Women Scientists in America, which provides both quantitative and qualitative evidence of women's struggles in, and field-changing contributions to, science.

My own research has focused on women working in natural history museums between 1875 and 1950. Again and again, I have found evidence of women building networks--of men and women, but most noteworthy was the inclusion of women--to democratize access to, and the practice of, science. They brought more perspectives--more brains, if we must be crass--into science, and science and the American people have benefited tremendously from their efforts. I fail to see how making 21st-century science more accessible to women is a danger, as Hoff Sommers claims, to national defense or to the economy.

As is too frequently the case, when I searched the blogosphere for commentary on Hoff Sommers's editorial, most of those commenting on the story were male--and agreed with Hoff Sommers's conclusions. They deserve a closer look and a response.

Hans Bader worries "The result [of enforcing Title IX in the sciences] could be a substantial reduction in the number of scientists graduating from America’s colleges and universities."

What's with the wild conjecturing? While many universities have interpreted Title IX to mean they must enforce parity of funding in athletics and thus have cut funding to some men's teams, I have yet to see statistics that suggest that fewer men are pursuing athletics because of Title IX.

Richard Whitmire of Why Boys Fail writes,

I’m greatly in favor of boosting the number of women earning advanced degrees in the science — given the campus gender gaps, it should be considered a top economic priority — but I doubt sexism in college engineering departments is a major player. For a moment, just try to imagine the magnitude of the conspiracy that would entail. In my observation, young women superbly prepared in high school for careers in math and science are setting aside those majors soon after arriving on campus, long before crusty old male department heads appear on the scene.

Here's the problem: It's not just the crusty old male department heads who are off-putting. It's the middle school and high school teachers who fail to hold girls' interest in science and technology. It's parents who dissuade their daughters from entering fields where they would have to compete with men who have a social advantage and, in many cases, white privilege. It's also the young guys hanging out in computer science forums who insist that women's brains are wired differently than men's and that's why women don't want to enter science and engineering. (To which women in the forums inevitably reply: No, it's because of dolts like you that we don't go into engineering.) There isn't an organized conspiracy to keep women out of science--and I don't think anyone seriously believes there is--but there is plenty that engineering departments could do to make the classroom, lab, hallways, and departmental social occasions more welcoming to women.

One man, TheBell, unpacks Sommers's characterization of Title IX as the death knell of men's sports in high schools and colleges:

Sommers and others are correct about a detrimental tendency toward male athletics but this is neither across the board nor due to Title IX alone. Rather it is the devastation of a perfect storm created when the irresistible force of civil rights advocacy meets the immovable object of big money sports.

Unwilling to make even modest cuts in revenue-generating programs, such as football and basketball, many schools choose instead to make draconian cuts in less popular men’s sports, such as wrestling, track and field, swimming, and tennis, to pay for new women’s programs. As a result, the average number of available sports programs has increased for women but fallen for men since Title IX’s advent. This is a choice by school administrators and not necessarily one in the best interest of either male or female students.

Yet in the end TheBell agrees with Sommers:

Sommers is probably right and Obama probably wrong in disparaging Title IX as an ideal tool to help solve our nation’s current math/science gap. Forcing increased opportunities for female participation will do little when the current low participation seems as much a product of female preference as it does male sexism.

Female preference for what? I think the problem isn't that women prefer the subject matter of the humanities and social sciences. It's that they prefer an atmosphere that welcomes them--an environment built by people who believe that many women do genuinely enjoy the STEM disciplines.

Paul Mirengoff is worried about caps on male participation and a dilution of competition in science:

The comparison between female participation in college athletics and female participation in science and engineering programs is beyond specious. In college athletics there are two distinct sets of teams -- men's teams and the women's teams. Men's programs compete with women's programs for resources (a competition that Title IX seeks to control), but men and women do not compete for slots on the same teams.

In graduate engineering programs (for example), the tracks are the same for both genders. Thus, men and woman are in direct competition for the same slots. If the government wants to control that competition, it must override decisions as to who the best qualified competitors are. The analogy in a sports context would be requiring men's basketball teams to include a certain number of women.

The other key distinction between sports and science/engineering is that, in sports, participation is an important end in itself. This is inherent in the nature of sports, which have always been linked to recreation and fitness.

Is participation in science not also inherently beneficial in many ways, assuming the science is ethical?

I sense fear in Mirengoff's statement about "direct competition for the same slots." This is the same rhetoric used by those who currently dominate those "slots" anytime any proposal that smacks of affirmative action or remediation pops up. And yet, as a joint statement (PDF) from the Association of Women in Science and the Society of Women Engineers highlights, not one study has shown that women receive preferential treatment in competition for scientific positions in federal programs.

Title IX ensures that one gender is not unfairly discriminated against. It does not guarantee or mandate proportional representation by gender, even in athletics. Thus Dr. Hoff Sommers' concerns about "enforced parity" are unfounded. With at least nine Title IX complaince reviews already completed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of Energy, not one single male student or faculty member has lost his slot to make way for a woman. Not a single review has raised the issue of gender parity. Rather, the reviews focus on policies, practices and procedures that might unnecessarily (and unfairly) exclude women from full participation in engineering and science programs at nuiversiies that receive significant taxpayer suport in the form of federal research grant funding. They are not "haphazard," as Dr. Hoff Sommers suggests. They are done with attention to the factors that we know hinder the full participation of women in academic science and engineering.

Dr. Hoff Sommers fears that these reviews will disrupt the culture of academic science and engineering and, by extension, destroy the American scientific excellence so vital to the economy and national defense. Yet, she and others who share her views have offered nothing other than conjecture as a basic for this irrational fear. On the other hand, study after study shows the value of diversity in the workplace, particularly with regard to bringing new ideas forward in creative and imaginative ways.

Worry not, fellow women--not all men are against us. Andrew Plemmons Pratt at Science Progress writes,

What [Hoff Sommers] fails to mention is that fact that at each rung of the academic ladder from undergrad to professorship, more women leave science and engineering fields, leading to a dearth of female representation in the upper echelons. According to a National Academies report, “at the top research institutions, only 15.4% of the full professors in the social and behavioral sciences and 14.8% in the life sciences are women.” These are the circles where gender parity is a significant question.

Sommers then touches on the merits of “sexist bias” or “considered preference” as explanations for the imbalances. But if we’re going to focus on the top of the scientific profession, where the representational differences are real, then consider the results of a survey from last year of tenured investigators at the National Institutes of Health: “only 29 percent of the tenure-track principal investigators (PI) and 19 percent of tenured PIs—the NIH equivalent of assistant and full professors, respectively—are women.”

Hannah at Women in Astronomy engages directly with Hoff Sommers's example of women's basketball to illustrate how, even with the gender parity of Title IX, men's interests are not being harmed:

[M]en's college basketball does not seem to have suffered at all from the rise of women's college basketball. College basketball was all over the news last month, at least the men's tournament. Maybe once in a while you'd hear about the women's tournament, but it wasn't the big story.

Hannah continues,

[W]e need to bring more people into STEM fields. If you limit those people to just the white males, you're not taking advantage of all your resources. This is not a zero-sum game. Believe it or not, women and minorities can make significant contributions to STEM, too. The white male culture of STEM does not necessarily produce the best science, and just because it's always been that way doesn't mean that it can't change.

Title IX is not just about sports: it's about ending sexual discrimination in universities as a whole. It just so happens that the only realm where this has been successful is sports. Title IX was passed 37 years ago: it's high time that it was applied more widely.

Amen. Let's provide more opportunities for the high-achieving Joans and Carols and Stacys to emerge within scientific fields as well as athletic ones.

What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Lucas directs

Mr. Trillwing has been learning to play guitar, and he frequently records his progress on video. This time, Lucas decided to direct.


Lucas is now three and a half years old, and he's been quite the talented little artist for some time, but I felt this drawing, entitled "Bugs," in particular was worth sharing. Lucas has been spending a lot of time watching bugs and the Easter Bunny even brought him a butterfly net so he could chase bugs around the yard.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Update on the Awesome University job

Someone at Awesome University was kind enough to call me unofficially yesterday to fill me in on what's going on with the teaching center director job there.

Without divulging too many details that were offered in confidence, it sounds as if I could very much have had the job--if a difference of opinion between the committee and administrators at AU hadn't led to cancellation of the position. It likely will be relisted next year, but it may be a staff job with teaching responsibilities (much like the one I have now) instead of the dreamy tenure-track faculty job it was.

So that sucks. Big time.

I'll live.

I think the worst of it will hit on Monday when I sit back down at my desk. You know how when you're thinking about a new job, you begin to fantasize about the things you do for your current job that aren't your favorite tasks, and how soon you'll get to leave them behind? Yeah, I had started to do that. So I'll need to refocus on Monday.

At the same time, I'm seeing my current institution as an increasingly unstable place to be, economically speaking, and an increasingly undesirable place to be professionally (see: impending move to cubicle farm, likely furloughs, already frozen salary, likely temporary or permanent cuts in salary).

But the great cosmic wheel of my professional development continues to turn, and another really interesting possibility has fallen into my lap, one outside the academy working with a large coalition of regional cultural institutions. I don't have any connections at this organization, but it does intersect with both my professional experience and--imagine this!--my dissertation research.

Meanwhile, my support system here has kicked into high gear, with friends and colleagues offering assorted e-mails, phone calls, and, yesterday, a good lunch accompanied by some strong, er, lemonade. I'm getting lots of reassurance that I'm "amazing," "a gift," "terrifically talented, imaginative, and thorough," etc., so on balance I guess I'm OK. Thanks for the self-esteem boost, colleagues!

Monday, April 06, 2009

You might be a little jaded by grading if you sent this e-mail to your grad students

I'm just saying, you know, hypothetically.

SUBJECT: Stop what you're doing RIGHT NOW

. . .unless you're, like, in the ER or something, and read Strunk and
White's advice on using the active voice. It's tip #14, and it's on
page 18 of the edition I have.

While you're at it, read #15, #16, and #17, too.

Seriously, you people have a love affair with the passive voice. And
you know what? It's time to break it off. He's just not that into
you (or your thesis).

Tip #14 folks, tip #14.

Your professor, your readers, your employers, and your country will
thank you.

That is all.

For now.


In stasis

Some of you may remember a while back I had a phone interview for a fabulous position at Awesome University. At the time, I was told I would hear more within two weeks. Well, universities being what they are, apparently the bureaucracy has slowed things down considerably, as it's now been six weeks and the only communication I've heard from the committee is a request for clarification of my teaching experiences--which I took as a good, if certainly not definitive, sign.

Once again, this isn't a post of complaints about the amount of time that has passed--I understand bureaucracies and departmental politics and whatever else may be going on, really. It's more a reflection on the weird stasis where I find myself because I really do want to believe I have a shot at this job.

At this point, I'm not sure what to think, and I'm trying to make peace with whatever the outcome may be.

Meanwhile, though, we're experiencing some minor paralysis. Examples:

- Do I invest the couple hundred dollars and days of labor in the garden? It's time to buy soil amendments, mulch, seeds and seedlings. The mother in me would hate to plant a garden only to leave it to wither in the hot Sacramento Valley summer. It seems cruel somehow. (I know, it's silly, but it's on my mind.)

- Mr. Trillwing isn't thrilled with his job situation, and even though he works from home, it's unlikely his current employer would let him keep his job if we move across three time zones. (The job I applied for is on the East Coast.) If we're going to move, in this economy he needs to start networking and looking for work in the region like, yesterday. (Because emergency savings? Yeah, we spent those and then some on the childbirth a few years ago, vet care for our late dog, and then the cars last year, and we never have caught up.)

- If we're going to move, we should give our landlord 60 days' notice. Thirty days is required, but from experience I've found there's more goodwill (and thus sometimes larger deposits) to be had if we give more notice. The job starts July 1. . .

- Ditto with the daycare provider. 30 days is required. 60 days would be kinder.

- There's a conference I've been wanting to attend, and it's put on every year by Awesome University. It takes place in May. If I'm going to find affordable plane tickets, I need to purchase them soon. Even if I'm not the final candidate for the position, I personally wouldn't feel awkward attending this conference because, hey, I don't really experience personal awkwardness--I gave it up years ago (too much stress, not much fun). At the same time, I wouldn't want to make the search committee members or anyone else at Awesome University feel uncomfortable. I asked one of the search committee members for advice on whether I should plan on attending, and he said he'd be delighted to have me attend, but that he needed a few days to think on it.

- I work on a lot of projects here at the teaching center, and wrapping them up is going to take a couple of months at least. Meanwhile, I'm being asked to take on other projects and campus-wide responsibilities. I'm not sure what to do.

See? Stasis. I like a bit of the predictability that accompanies my usual brand of stasis, but I also like a sense of forward propulsion, and I'm not feeling it right now.

Leave your encouragements, admonitions to be patient, or condolences--whatever you see as appropriate--in the comments. . .