This blog post first appeared on my blog on March 4th, 2011. I’m sharing it with the Scientific American audience today because I’ve assigned this post to my students for next week. Plus, who doesn’t love a good John Tierney takedown?
My daughter will be three in just a few weeks. She loves telling stories. These stories have the same, uncomplicated arc every time: she and her friends Dora, Diego, Boots and Baby Jaguar go on an adventure to rescue Mommy from the giant condor. Or sometimes Mommy and Dora and Diego and Boots and Baby Jaguar are rescuing her. Or sometimes Daddy does the rescuing.
There is almost always a net, then a pair of Rescue Scissors needed to cut the captive free. But the variation in these stories is very small, the framework borrowed heavily from one of the few mythologies known to my little girl: Dora the Explorer.
Evolutionary psychology is often a kind of story-telling, and instead of borrowing from a preschool cartoon they borrow from the concept of anisogamy. Anisogamy is sexual reproduction formed by unequal gametes, in our lineage a big egg made by females and little sperm made by males. This provides the foundation for differential reproductive investment, where females often put in the time and effort of gestation, lactation and care. From here, proponents of EP see essential differences between what men and women want in relationships, and the kinds of relationships that are optimal, and a model this broad makes it possible to shoehorn any behavior into its adaptive framework.
Enter John Tierney, my (not) favorite journalist for the New York Times. This is the man who thinks that sexism is a radical act (I am referring to his charming articles on gender disparities in science). So I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when he outed himself as an EP fanboi in his most recent piece, “The Threatening Scent of Fertile Women.”
Tierney covered the work of Jon Maner and others who have studied relationship maintenance – the suite of behaviors that keeps a couple together. In particular, Tierney focuses on the problem of the wandering eye, or rather, the possible mechanisms that prevent it in a monogamous couple. The idea here is that relationship maintenance is evolutionarily adaptive, because when a couple stays together it is easier to raise offspring and increase reproductive success.
The range of explanations
The study that frames Tierney’s column is Miller and Maner (2010). Thirty eight undergraduate men rated the attractiveness of a woman with whom they interact, at several points over her menstrual cycle. The authors found NO relationship between where a woman is in her cycle and how attractive a single man finds her, but a negative relationship between the chance a woman is fertile and how attractive a partnered man finds her.
What do Miller and Maner (2010) discuss, and what is the idea Tierney is so enamored with?
“It’s possible that some of the men in Florida were just trying to look virtuous by downgrading the woman’s attractiveness, the way a husband will instantly dismiss any woman pointed out by his wife. (That Victoria’s Secret model? Ugh! A skeleton with silicone.) But Jon Maner, a co-author of the study, says that’s unlikely because the men filled out their answers in private and didn’t expect the ratings to be seen by anyone except the researchers.
“It seems the men were truly trying to ward off any temptation they felt toward the ovulating woman,” said Dr. Maner, who did the work with Saul Miller, a fellow psychologist at Florida State. “They were trying to convince themselves that she was undesirable. I suspect some men really came to believe what they said. Others might still have felt the undercurrent of their forbidden desire, but I bet just voicing their lack of attraction helped them suppress it.””
This conjecture is unconnected to the study’s methodology and results. Nowhere in that study did they assess the participants’ state of mind or ask them how they felt about this. How do we know they were trying to convince themselves of anything? This finding, while interesting, does not test their hypothesis for an evolutionary framework for relationship maintenance that includes adaptively suppressing attraction to others.
Maner et al (2009) studied the attention people pay to images of attractive people of the opposite sex when first exposed to sexual words like “lust” and “kiss.” They recruited 120 straight undergraduates, thirty six of whom were in committed relationships. Individuals in committed relationships paid far less attention to the attractive images than those not in relationships. Tierney titters,
“The subliminal priming with words related to sex apparently activated some unconscious protective mechanism: Tempt me not! I see nothing! I see nothing!”
I’ve done my own share of human subjects research, and subjects will often tell you or do what they think you want, or they will just not be honest if they don’t want you to know the truth. What if, as originally posed by Tierney himself, the respondents weren’t warding off temptation but wanted to look virtuous? What if, now bear with me because this might seem crazy, the people in these studies were in love with their partners and genuinely uninterested in anyone else? Too often EP wants to provide a single explanation for a behavior, when the range of possible explanations far exceeds their hypothesis.
An anthropological perspective
Jamie Jones, Associate Professor at Stanford and blogger at Monkey’s Uncle describes anthropology like this,
“…[A]nthropology is the science charged with explaining the origin and maintenance of human diversity in all its forms. To achieve this end, anthropology must be unapologetically grand in its scope. How can we explain human diversity without documenting its full extent, through both time and space, and across cultures? … Where does the tapestry of human diversity come from and how is it that we continually manage to resist powerful homogenizing forces and hang on to our diversity? What commonalities transcend local difference to unite all humanity? How is it that civilizations rise and fall? And what is the fate of humanity?”
Jamie beautifully depicts the importance of documenting and understanding diversity even in the face of efforts to simplify human nature. Thus, to me, an anthropological perspective is often at odds with EP explanations for behavior.
An anthropological perspective asks, what happens if you take these basic observations and, instead of deciding on a favorite explanation and applying it to everyone, put them into a model in which you can vary context (age/sex specific mortality rates, distribution of resources, what have you) and see what range of strategies actually give fitness benefits? That is, when you actually throw some variation into the equation, is this still the best strategy for the partnered men with whom Tierney feels simpatico?
Right now we don’t know. Much psychological empiricism rests on undergraduates who participate in studies for course credit. When one wants to make connections to evolutionary adaptedness, they may be a place to start, but not end.
I have a real problem with continuing to use this population to make statements of universality for all humans. Undergraduates usually are trying to avoid pregnancy and build their financial and social capital, so relationship maintenance for the sake of reproductive success rarely exists. Until we can show that relationship maintenance, and the particular behaviors Miller, Maner and others study within that are shown across many populations, and particularly across reproductively-aged folks, their argument for adaptation fails.
Another problem is that most work on relationships in EP tends to be heteronormative, meaning that they think nothing of assuming that either everyone is straight, or the universally best behavioral strategy is to be straight. They also tend to assume that the best strategy is to be monogamous, with occasional sneaky infidelity permitted if one can get better genes or more offspring that way (keep in mind that there is a difference between what might be biologically advantageous in a certain context, and what is culturally appropriate – the argument here is not against the culture of monogamy).
But heterosexual monogamy is only one reproductive strategy of many that humans employ. Depending on how you measure it, monogamy and polygyny (single male, multi female marriage) vie for the most frequent strategy – in fact, polygyny occurs in about 80% of modern human societies (Murdock and White 1969). There are even a few rare populations that practice polyandry, which is the marriage of a single female and multiple males. And, even in those populations where monogamy is practiced, serial monogamy is far more frequent than lifetime monogamy: this means that individuals have a series of monogamous relationships rather than find one mate for life (so no, divorce is not a modern human invention).
When taking an even broader, comparative perspective, monogamy isn’t practiced by our closest relatives at all. Chimpanzees and bonobos, both equally related to us, are promiscuous. This is a scientific term for a reproductive strategy that involves females and males making reproductive decisions to mate with many individuals at each fertile period. Bonobos are also promiscuous, but they also use heterosexual and homosexual sex to reduce stress and aggression, and form bonds among one another. Gorillas, our next closest relative, are polygynous. Orangutans are very solitary, but essentially promiscuous. It’s only once you delve into the lesser apes, the gibbons, that you see any monogamy, and they are far less monogamous than we first thought (Brockelman et al 1998).
Maintaining a heterosexual, monogamous relationship is certainly advantageous at certain times, in certain contexts. But it is not universally adaptive, even within humans. Without anyone studying these behaviors in populations that use different reproductive strategies, and in the absence of comparative data to support these assertions, we are at an impasse.
In the words of a friend, EP is plugged into evolutionary theory with little more than a ratty old extension cord. EP takes some very basic, ancestral conditions, like differential costs of reproduction, and uses it in a sufficiently vague way that any behavior can relate to females generally being the ones to put in all the time and effort into making babies. Yet EP often ignores the three conditions necessary for natural selection, the mechanism for evolution. For natural selection to act on a trait, the trait must be variable, heritable, and produce differential reproductive success. Rarely does EP understand variation in a trait, rarely does it examine whether said trait has a genetic component, and rarely does it test whether their trait confers a reproductive advantage.
Are fertile women a threat to partnered harmony, their scents providing a temptation that noble men must suppress? I can’t rule it out, but I also think it is one of the least likely of many possible explanations.
Unfortunately for readers of the New York Times, Tierney loved this idea more than he loved interrogating it.
I’d like to thank Charles Roseman, friend, faculty curmudgeon and Bastard Colleague from Hell, for taking a look at an early draft of this post and providing commentary crucial to its improvement. Any rhetorical or scientific errors are my own.
Brockelman, W., Reichard, U., Treesucon, U., & Raemaekers, J. (1998). Dispersal, pair formation and social structure in gibbons ( Hylobates lar ) Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 42 (5), 329-339 DOI:10.1007/s002650050445
MANER, J., GAILLIOT, M., & MILLER, S. (2009). The implicit cognition of relationship maintenance: Inattention to attractive alternatives Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (1), 174-179 DOI:10.1016/j.jesp.2008.08.002
Miller, S, & Maner, J (2010). Evolution and relationship maintenance: Fertility cues lead committed men to devalue relationship alternatives Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 1081-1084
Murdock, G., & White, D. (1969). Standard Cross-Cultural Sample Ethnology, 8 (4) DOI: 10.2307/3772907
I have accumulated readers to the point that I occasionally receive emails, tweets and other things that ask me to point my eyes, which happen to also be Laser Beams of Ladybusiness Justice, upon some ridiculous article. Usually it’s evolutionary psychology.
Today, it was a factually inaccurate, embarrassing, horribly wrong and honestly not-funny blog post by health and beauty editor Cat Marnell for the new women’s webzine XOJane. On birth control. That she doesn’t like to be bothered to take. Oh, also, she doesn’t like condoms.
So she just takes Plan B whenever she has unprotected sex.
Here’s the thing. I am not the only blogger with Laser Beams of Ladybusiness Justice (henceforth known as LBOLJ, and intensified by the wearing of gender lenses) – not even close. And so first I want to direct you to three blog posts written by owners of LBOLJ that cover the main, important points of why this Plan B article on XOJane is both wrong and dangerous.
Rebecca Watson of Skepchick: http://skepchick.org/2011/10/xojanes-cat-marnell-performance-art-or-gross-idiocy/
Scicurious at Neurotic Physiology: http://scientopia.org/blogs/scicurious/2011/10/15/xo-janes-health-editor-are-you-playing-with-me/
Michelle Clement at Crude Matter: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/crude-matter/2011/10/15/girlybits-101-now-with-fewer-scary-parts/
Watson covers the sheer stupidity of the article, and considers whether the writer intended it as performance art. My guess is that she thought she was being funny, but that the article does reflect her best thinking about contraception, which is a pretty dangerous person to hire as your health editor.
Sci covers the many, many factual inaccuracies of the article, particularly one that Sci herself has put to rest in the past: as it turns out, many empirical articles support the assertion that the pill does NOT make you fat.
Clement provides a truly wonderful, accessible account of how reproductive physiology works in women. This happens to be my research specialty, and I can tell you it is one of the best descriptions I’ve ever read for how the uterus and ovaries function.
I want to add only one other point: if, as Marnell implies, taking the pill regularly is just too darn hard, and she just doesn’t like condoms, there are plenty of other options for contraception that don’t involve having to remember to do something daily or just before intercourse. Depo-Provera is a shot you take once every three months. IUDs can require an outpatient procedure but are incredibly effective and, after some of that icky spotting that Marnell hates so much for the first month after insertion, astoundingly low in side effects and effective for five years.
So, good birth control that you only have to think about every three months, or every five years.
Of course, and please forgive the all caps here, but Marnell’s liberal use of them has inspired me:
NONE OF THESE OPTIONS PREVENT STDS.
Do you want pelvic inflammatory disease? Syphilis? Gonorrhea? HIV? As one commenter over at Marnell’s piece pointed out, gonorrhea may quickly become untreatable because many strains are antibiotic resistant. Other STDs can cause cancer like human papillomavirus (HPV), and still others, like bacterial vaginosis (BV), can cause pre-term birth.
As an aside, I was a devoted Sassy and Jane reader back when they were each in circulation. I found both this irresponsible article on Plan B, and Jane Pratt’s weak response to the outcry against it, distressing.
Finally, maybe my status as a blogger with LBOLJ has made me immune to these things, but I have only ever encountered women, young and old, who have an intense curiosity about their own bodies. Rather than recoiling from the science of female physiology, they email me, tweet me, find me at roller derby practice, message me on Facebook; they come to my office hours, wait around after class, or send me anonymous notes that they ask me to address in class, all asking me to explain, clarify, or help them understand something about how their bodies work. I get blunt questions, honest and detailed descriptions of cervical mucus or menstrual blood, and hypothetical scenarios about friends with problems.
And I answer every single one I possibly can, because the last thing I’d want to do is discourage curiosity about a topic of such massive importance to women taking charge of their bodies, reproductive rights and enjoyment of the variable, nuanced, sometimes painful, often delightful, experience of being female. Most women just want to know that they are normal, or want to place their experience in the context of our current understanding of the biology of reproduction.
Marnell’s piece glamorizes being incurious in a fundamental and problematic way. It makes it cool to be skeeved out by one’s body, to hate it and want to dissociate with it, to avoid glaringly obvious contradictions (such as, I hate birth control pills but love a single pill that contains lots and lots of birth control in it). And the fact that Jane Pratt saw fit to hire a writer with only a background in beauty to write a health and beauty column that even the writer admits is pretty short on health, is a disservice to her readers.
Being curious is one of the most important aspects of having a fulfilling life. My curiosity is what drives me to work crazy hours at my job, because I just can’t stand not knowing how my data analysis will turn out, or whether I will be able to process and understand my data as I write about it, or whether I can find something cool or new in the literature. I love nuance, and perplexing questions, and topics that find themselves continually in shades of gray.
Fight against this unfortunate idea that it’s cool and funny to not be curious. Be curious every day.
In high school, my mother occasionally found babysitting jobs for me. Parents, desperate for a trustworthy kid to watch their own, would entrust their offspring to Katie the honors student while they went to a meeting, or to work, or perhaps on a date.
If any of those parents are reading, I have a confession for you: I didn’t like watching your kids.
It’s not because any of these kids were bad – they weren’t. It’s because I was totally uninterested in children. I had no desire to bear them, raise them, make room in my life for them. I dreaded my babysitting jobs, and as a result have a keen eye for that same mixed look of revulsion and desire to make a little money in the eyes of potential babysitters for my own daughter.
Then, in college, I spent a weekend with an eleven month old cousin, a boy who was so amazingly sweet and loving that I hardly gave him back to his mother. One day in class I watched in awe as the 8-month pregnant belly of my mentor moved after we all laughed and shared a joke. Over time, I softened to the idea of having children. I got engaged, and then married. I got a job. And then one day, I wanted a baby, two babies, a million babies, and I wanted them now and if you stand in my way I will cut you down.
My maternal tendencies were age, partner and wealth-dependent. There is surely a biological component as well. But these life experiences and my own status as someone with a stable partner and income helped produce the biocultural milieu that led to me waking up one morning and realizing that I needed to smell a baby’s hair as I cradled her in my arms.
* * *
I have always appreciated the thoughtfulness and rigor of the work that is affiliated with Perrett. You may even be familiar with some of their findings related to mate preferences and face shape (Perrett et al 1994):
I teach this material to my students; the studies are always thoughtful, the papers well-organized, the results interesting. So it was with some excitement that I read the latest paper in Perrett’s group published in Hormones and Behavior, “Maternal tendencies in women are associated with estrogen levels and facial femininity” (Law Smith et al. 2011). Scicurious was the one who passed it on to me, and recommended that we do a tag-team on the paper, as we have done in the past on PMDD. Sci covers some important sociological aspects to the paper.
It’s ok. I’ll wait while you read her post.
Anyway, Law Smith and colleagues performed two studies: one where they correlated subjects’ estradiol concentrations to their self-reported desire to have children, and another where they correlated ratings of subjects’ faces as more feminine with those subjects’ self-reported desire to have children. This group has previously found a relationship between estradiol concentrations and facial femininity (Law Smith et al. 2006).
So, is this the end of the story? Women who are more feminine have higher maternal tendencies?
Sci and I probably wouldn’t be blogging about it if it weren’t.
Here’s the thing. Just like all those other papers I have loved, this one is on the whole carefully constructed. And the correlations are correlations, nothing fishy going on there. But I worry about two things: how the media will frame the article, and how the study authors defined two of their most important variables.
First, the study authors themselves don’t help the situation: in the introduction, they point out only the biological underpinnings of maternal tendencies in a way that is essentialized, reduced to an individual’s hormones prenatally and in adulthood. But many studies have examined maternal ambivalence in contexts where there is high infant mortality (Scheper Hughes 1985), or as it relates to age, as in teen pregnancy (Kramer 2008). These also have biological origins, in part, as they involve the kinds of trade-offs individuals may consider when investing, or not, in offspring. So maternal tendencies are rooted only partially in whatever essential mix of hormones contributes to our being gendered feminine.
Then there are the usual issues with study population: subjects were white, nulliparous (no pregnancies) college students, average age of nineteen for the first study and twenty for the second. In addition to the usual issues of studying a WEIRD population (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic), studying the hormones of a population that young may yield different results than in older populations. Girls can have irregular cycles for as many as twelve years after their period (Vihko and Apter 1984), and they have lower hormone concentrations than adult women (Lipson and Ellison 1992). How might that interact with the questions the study authors are asking? How important is it that a teenage girl’s hormone concentrations correlate with maternal tendencies?
Then, there is the way that they define maternal tendencies. The study authors asked subjects at what age they wanted to have children, and how many they wanted, in order to arrive at that subject’s maternal tendencies. Again, I wonder how the study’s results might change if they asked an older population, or a population from another country or ethnicity.
Law Smith et al themselves admit in the discussion that their study sample of white college students may have impacted their results; they found no correlation between estrogen concentrations and ideal age at first child, only with the desired number of children. The mean age at desired first child was higher, and range of variation smaller, than that found in other studies with broader subject pools.
Rather than frame this as the subject population confounding their results, I would submit that this confirms that one’s “trait estrogen,” as the authors put it, is only one aspect of the biocultural milieu in which women find themselves when making reproductive decisions. Overall women have been having children at older ages and, when they have control over their reproductive lives, generally choose to have fewer of them. But if anything, estrogen would be increasing in these populations, as they are often also well-fed and therefore never needing to divert resource away from reproductive hormone production.
While this study provides some interesting evidence, it does not tell us that women with low or high maternal tendencies necessarily have higher or lower estrogen, or are more or less feminine. Not wanting a baby today, or any day, does not make you less feminine. And when the media onslaught begins over these findings, we would do well to remember it.
Kramer KL. 2008. Early sexual maturity among Pume foragers of Venezuela: Fitness implications of teen motherhood. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 136(3):338-350.
Law Smith M, Deady D, Moore F, Jones B, Cornwell R, Stirrat M, Lawson J, Feinberg D, and Perrett D. 2011. Maternal tendencies in women are associated with estrogen levels and facial femininity. Hormones and Behavior.
Law Smith M, Perrett D, Jones B, Cornwell R, Moore F, Feinberg D, Boothroyd L, Durrani S, Stirrat M, and Whiten S. 2006. Facial appearance is a cue to oestrogen levels in women. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 273(1583):135.
Lipson SF, and Ellison PT. 1992. Normative Study of Age Variation in Salivary Progesterone Profiles. J Biosoc Sci 24(2):233-244.
Perrett DI, May K, and Yoshikawa S. 1994. Facial shape and judgements of female attractiveness. Nature 368(6468):239-242.
Scheper Hughes N. 1985. Culture, scarcity, and maternal thinking: maternal detachment and infant survival in a Brazilian shantytown. Ethos 13(4):291-317.
Vihko R, and Apter D. 1984. Endocrine characteristics of adolescent menstrual cycles: impact of early menarche. J Steroid Biochem 20(1):231-236.
The three things I learned at the Purdue Conference for Pre-Tenure Women: on being a radical scholar
“We should get back to work.”
We sit another moment, shoulders slumped, dark circles under our eyes.
“I don’t know how I’m going to get all these grants done,” he says.
“I don’t know how I’ll get all these manuscripts drafted,” I reply.
We sit some more. We talk some more. About how we can’t compete against people with kids but a stay at home spouse, about how we can’t compete against our peers without kids at all. He is in a department where people show up early and stay late. You can find a third of the faculty in the department at any given time on the weekends. I’m in a department where folks work from home as often as they work from the office, but they are still getting stuff done. And it feels like they are all getting more done than me.
Pile the ubiquitous Mommy Guilt on top of this, the culturally conditioned guilt that says not staying at home hurts my child despite the intellectual knowledge that good daycare, and the kind of quality investments I make with my daughter, are hugely beneficial, and there are few hours in my day to sleep.
We talk some more. Someone cries; it’s usually me. We head to the couch and pull out our laptops and work until our eyes blur the lines on the screen. Then we go to the bed. I fall asleep while my husband reads several articles on his tablet. I wake at five the next morning to go to work early.
This is the more raw side of my life, the harder side that blog readers and Twitter followers seldom see. But it has become harder to hide in the year of my third year review. I am at the halfway point between the start of my job and going up for tenure. And I wonder if this track I have fought so hard for, the one where I lead my life the way I feel is right and has the most impact, is the one that will earn me tenure, or earn me a handshake and a wave out the door.
* * *
It was in this frame of mind that I headed to the Purdue Conference for Pre-Tenure Women on September 22nd-23rd, feeling terrible at what a mess I was making of my wifely and motherly duties, and how I surely would never be able to get my act together enough to get tenure at the prestigious R1 institution where I am employed.
The conference did not lower my panic, or my tears, and judging by the other attendees, I was not alone. I heard a lot of women talk about how much they yearn for tenure, about their ambition to be a leader in their field, and then only minutes later their voices would break as they would finish, “But I am not a bad person if I don’t get tenure.” A lot of us talked about the babies we left at home to be there, the fights for lactation rooms, the women who pulled up the ladder behind them instead of reaching out a hand, the men who sneered at the idea that a conference for pre-tenure women was even necessary. And we talked about our allies, the men and women who had our backs, explicit mentors as well as the people we admired from afar.
The conference was transformative. I feel like those hundred or so women that I went to that conference with are my posse now, and it is exciting to imagine that in six to ten years, we could, all of us, be tenured. I felt supported and appreciated by the folks who ran the conference, and was simply amazed at the fierceness and brilliance of both the organizers and speakers (Katie Pope and Beverly Davenport Sypher now rank among my Favorite People Ever). I finally got to meet the great Alice Pawley, and was struck by her warmth, her intelligence, and her strength. I came away with several concrete ideas to improve my chances for tenure… and a lot of unease about this process that will not leave me until I hear final word, a few more years from now, about whether or not I get it.
So I want to share the three main points I learned. The first two are things I was taught last week, and the last is what I infer is necessary for us to change the way we understand tenure and promotion.
1. Bring your whole self to your job.
Dr. Caroline Sotello Viernes Turner gave the opening plenary talk, entitled “From Farm Labor to Academic Labor.” Dr. Turner was a farm worker and lived in a farm camp in California throughout her childhood. She gave a moving account of her own childhood experiences, her parents’ support of her love of reading, her life of “firsts” at her institutions – first tenured woman of color, first full professor woman of color, and embedded these personal experiences in a broader narrative about what this job asks of us.
Dr. Turner encouraged us to push against a job that forces us to “constantly abstract ourselves,” that we should bring our whole selves to the table because of what we offer but also because it makes us whole.
How many of us publicly admit the side of us that yearns for more childcare, but not also the side of us that yearns to turn off our computers and snuggle our kids for an afternoon? How many academics hide who they love, or what they love, for fear of not fitting in or not seeming serious? And no wonder; Dr. Turner describes academics of color in particular as being “guests in someone else’s house:”
“Like students of color in the university climate, guests have no history in the house they occupy. There are no photographs on the wall that reflect their image. Their paraphernalia, painting, scents and sounds do not appear in the house. There are many barriers for students who constantly occupy a guest status that keep them from doing their best work” (Turner 1994: 356).
I tend to bring what I think is my whole self, or most of it, to the table, but then a significant part of my brain is occupied by overthinking what I’ve done. What will they think of me if they hear I’m crazy about my kid? What will they think when they find I devote hours and hours to roller derby? That I have a blog? Are they judging me right now? And all those thoughts harm my interactions with colleagues, they limit my productivity, they mean that I only bring a fraction of the warmth and intelligence I’m capable of bringing to my job.
So no more. I’m bringing everything that I am to my job. This isn’t just about loving my kid, or being an athlete, or writing a blog, though it’s a start to fully embrace these things. This is about wanting to push the boundaries of how anthropologists and doctors think about female reproductive physiology. This is about the intersection of feminism and evolutionary biology. And this means that I need to more explicitly make this passion my primary scholarly interest.
2. Have a plan.
This point was largely inspired by a breakout session led by Dr. Mary Dankoski. In it, Dr. Dankoski asked us if we were the type of academic who lived by Plan A: did what we were asked to do and hoped we would have a rewarding fulfilling career while also meeting the promotion and tenure expectations, or Plan B: were proactive, developed a plan and negotiated responsibilities to be sure we will have vitality, find real meaning in our work, and meet promotion expectations.
You can probably guess which type most of us were, and which type Dankoski encouraged us to become. The Plan A academic says yes to most things because she is directionless and is trying to meet expectations, whereas the Plan B academic uses her personal values and interests to define and express her scholarly worth.
Related to Turner’s point about bringing your whole self to the job, Dankoski asked what we cared most about in order to create a career plan around it. She created a great handout to force us to write a Career Development Plan. The first step was to write on the following prompt:
“It is 5 years from today. If you were wildly successful in your work and personal life, what will you have achieved?”
It was powerful to hear women’s answers all around the room. They gave bold answers: to become a leader in their field, to embody social justice values, to raise a family, to be on the path to becoming a provost, to have several federally funded grants. Like many women, I have been chastised in the past for daring to say that I want to lead a big life. But here was only encouragement and excitement.
Next, we filled in a blank table on our handout. The rows were labeled Values, Passions, Strengths and Challenges, the columns labeled Professional and Personal. This gave me a sense of my strengths and where I should be focusing my scholarly attention. Why, if I am so passionate about changing sexism in science and medicine, am I not doing scholarly work on it? Part of identifying these issues is to help us get our strengths to “count” in a traditional tenure process (which I will get to later).
So, have a goal and make it a big one. Make a plan, ground it in your personal values. Dream big, form actionable steps towards those dreams, and put some thought into how your dreams and the mission of your institution intersect. Any time you can convince your employer that your dreams are good for them will make it easier to make them happen.
3. Be a radical.
At the conclusion of the first day, Dr. Sypher pointed out that simply getting one hundred women through the tenure process was a pretty darn radical act in and of itself. In many ways she is right. It is a radical thing for us to stick it out, when so many don’t. And honestly, thinking about all of the women I met last week getting tenure is something that is going to carry me through a number of rough days.
To be clear, it’s not that academia weeds out the weak. The research on attrition for women and people of color indicates it’s not that women who leave are not confident, or are weak, but that they know their self-worth and have decided they’d rather take their toys to another sandbox where they’ll actually be appreciated.
But those of us who insist on playing with our toys in the academic sandbox need to be radicals. And I do think a lot of the ways we need to be radical involves how we perform our job: we need to set boundaries so that we aren’t always doing the service work no one wants, we need to make our passions our scholarly interests in the face of some who would invalidate it, we need to perform our confidence in front of people who might undermine us. We need to get tenure.
But I think it also means reflecting critically on what it takes to get tenure, and whether the way it’s done is the way it should be done. There are two problems with the current criteria for tenure: they don’t reflect modern, interdisciplinary scholarship, and they don’t include metrics to evaluate influence and perspective beyond peer-reviewed publications.
More institutions are recognizing that interdisciplinary scholarship is a good thing, and some are even able to hire people with joint hires among the social sciences and ethnic studies, or biology and engineering. Yet these institutions that know they want their faculty to be twenty first century scholars use the same metrics to evaluate interdisciplinary scholars as they use to evaluate traditional ones. From conversations I had at the conference, they don’t know how to retain these scholars, or support them, and so many feel adrift, or don’t make it to tenure. And these faculty are very often from underrepresented groups – every one I met at the conference, in fact, was a woman of color.
Then there is the added issue of measuring influence and impact in a twenty first century society. At an R1 institution like mine, the criteria for tenure are to publish ten papers (thereabouts depending on the discipline, a book and some papers if you’re in the humanities), have teaching that doesn’t suck, and more or less pull your weight in terms of service. It doesn’t seem like much, until you consider the weeks, months and even years of work that go into each of those ten publications: writing and getting the grants (a near-impossible feat these days, with both NIH and NSF funding rates around 5%), advising the students, doing the research, analyzing it, hitting innumerable dead ends, drafting and revising, submitting and resubmitting. Publishing ten quality papers is hard work, and is in many ways a fine way to demonstrate one’s contribution to a field, perspective, and the beginning of one’s trajectory as a professor.
But are peer-reviewed publications, read and cited by only by a select group of those peers, the best way to assess influence and importance? They are certainly no longer the only way. My 2006 paper on iron-deficiency anemia and menstruation has been cited by six other papers; my 2011 blog post on this paper has been viewed tens of thousands of times and received almost sixty comments between its two postings. Some anthropology blogs have been responsible for starting entire new branches of the discipline, others show an applied side of anthropology that helps us see the impact of this field in our everyday lives; some ground their writing in a historical and evolutionary approach or move us with their perspective on war and poverty, where still others are not only influential, but regularly get more hits than the website for our main professional association. Some use their blog as a service to the discipline, and a newcomer is dispelling myths about milk (full disclosure: both of those blogs are by collaborators, kickass collaborators in fact). This is by no means an exhaustive list.
I’m not saying every academic needs to be interdisciplinary, or every academic needs a blog. But some of us are committed to thinking about scholarship in a different way, or being public intellectuals. We want to put time and effort into influencing our fields but also inspiring lay scientists and future academics. That is its own kind of professional impact.
So how does one be a radical when radical scholarship is hard to measure with current tenure criteria?
Be that radical anyway. Be the scholar you think you should be, bringing your whole self to the table, finding your passion and making it your scholarship, and having a plan that will help you become a leader in your field.
Every single female academic I have ever talked to about tenure has admitted to having a back-up plan. If I don’t get tenure, I’ll be okay because I can stay at home with the kids. I can go back to school. I can get back into my art. I can write. I can consult. If we’re going to all have these back-up plans (which, true to our impostor syndrome, are often better-defined than our actual plan to tenure) why not put it to good use? Live our lives, do our jobs the way we think they should be done, and try to get tenure that way. We already know what we’ll do if it doesn’t work.
And for goodness’ sake, don’t pull up the ladder behind you. That shit just ain’t cool.