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Context and Identity in Science Writing #scio13ID

As you now all know, my partner in crime Scicurious is much like the superhero Batwoman. Or maybe, she is trying to tell us something, and finally share with us her secret identity? I always wondered why she was hastily stuffing a cape into her backpack right before our Skype conversations…

My daughter dressed as Wordgirl for Halloween.

I may not be a superhero, but my daughter is. The kiddo as Wordgirl for Halloween.

Sci and I have taken pretty different approaches to our online identities. Sci keeps things close to the vest – yet many of my identities are quite clear to you. My age, gender and ethnicity are known, or easily assumed, from my profile picture. You know what I do and where I work. You know the composition of my family and the sport that is dear to my heart. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook (or the C&V Facebook page), you know even more about my life.

You know just enough about me that whatever stereotypes you hold about my various identities, depending on who you are and where you’re from, come to rest on my shoulders. This is an understandable and normal aspect of online communication – your brain wants to fill out the rest of who I am, and we’ve never met. This can have positive consequences, as the more you feel you know me the more you may trust my perspective, particularly if you feel we have anything in common. We may develop a warm acquaintance, or even friendship. Many of my closest and most valuable relationships have started or grown online. And I am constantly humbled by how some people perceive me as a role model.

The negative consequences, of course, are that if you disagree with me or aren’t a lot like me, you know exactly who to pin your anger on, and how to get under my skin. For a thirtysomething female like me, that means undercutting my authority, questioning my expertise, making sexual jokes, having an opinion on my reproductive decisions, and sometimes worse.

As Bora has recently brought up, and as I wrote about last year, moderating comments on the blog has made it so that my community has to see very little of this behavior. I can’t stop what happens on Twitter or Facebook, though. Despite the fact that setting up comment moderation on this blog helped create a brief resurgence of comments, a clunky commenting system and broader sea changes in online commenting have meant that Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites are where all the conversation has gone.

To be honest, the comments that used to destroy me hardly bother me anymore. You’d be surprised how much easier it is to shrug off someone joking about how you might look without clothes when you can delete the comment before anyone else sees it. More recently, what troubles me more about these attacks is that because readers feel they know me, they may do a less close reading of my posts and make assumptions about the content.

The other issue I’ve noticed is that because I now blog for a network, whatever assumptions people hold about Scientific American also carry over to what people read here. The positive side to this is that SciAm holds some prestige, which might elevate my standing or the impact of my words. But in some cases their expectations for what readers think they should be reading at SciAm do not match the kind of material I cover here, which leads to sputtering, indignant rage.

Overall, I have found that sharing a lot of myself has on the whole been good from blogging, role-modeling and community-building perspectives. But I think the degree to which you share of yourself, and which parts of your identity you share, should be deliberate and based on the particular goals for your online presence.

And that’s really the point of Sci’s and my session. What identities do you share, and how do they enable or hold back your goals for communicating science? What identities do you hide and why – how do you curate your image? What audiences do you reach? And how does the way we control our identity online affect the diversity of online voices? What careers do you make look possible?

Our session is session 9A Saturday at noon EST in room 3. Last year was a hit, and we moderate well together (it might have something to do with the mind-clearing, crazy workouts we do — go on and scroll down), so I’m looking forward to it. We’re one of the sessions that will be recorded, so you can watch us on your own, or attend one of the Science Online Watch Parties popping up all over the country. Also follow the story at hashtag #scio13ID, and in the diversity carnival that will be hosted here after Science Online.

Kate Clancy’s Short Grant Rant: On Broken Promises

Here is my grant rant. It is very, very simple.

Last night I was talking to a colleague who just heard he missed the funding cutoff for his NIH grant by a single point – a score of 19 and under was funded, and his grant was a 20 (Edited 1/27 8pm CST to fix incorrect wording – numbers weren’t percentiles but the actual NIH scores). He had applied to one of the many institutes that is trying to keep the R01 afloat by reducing funding to all the other funding mechanisms – which happen to be the mechanisms used more by early career faculty because they don’t have enough preliminary data for an R01 for several years. It was a proposal to one of those non-R01 mechanisms that just lost out. It was his last resubmission. Because it takes so long to actually get NIH money, even if he submitted a successful grant in the next round – March 2013 – he wouldn’t get approval for the funds until December 2014, and access to that money some time in 2015. In the meantime, that means he has no money to fund the personnel in his lab, let alone the supplies to do his research.

This colleague had just had a long talk with his program officer, and shared with that person that he thought it was unfortunate that the R01 is being privileged over other mechanisms, and that the NIH seems determined to sacrifice an entire generation of young scientists. This colleague does novel work, intentionally took a nontraditional approach to his doctorate and postdoc in order to try and so something awesome with his science. He’s encouraged by his senior colleagues all over the country who also think he’s awesome – it’s clear he is widely respected. But the few junior folks who get funded in his discipline are the ones who are doing something derivative of their postdoc or grad advisor, and they’re all out of the same three to five labs.

Here is what I had to say in that conversation (and the ensuing Twitter conversation): the NIH, and American science funding in general, is not just sacrificing a generation of scientists. They are sacrificing American science, period.

I don’t know who thinks things are going to get better, that somehow we’re just the one generation that is screwed. Funding lines are going to keep getting worse. Even in NIH grantwriting seminars, I’m getting told by people who sit on review panels that there is an increasingly high degree in subjectivity in who gets funded because once a grant is in the top 20%, how do you tell the difference between the top 10% and 20%? Poor reading, pettiness, cronyism – this is not what I’m hearing from sour grapes junior faculty, this is what I’m hearing from R01-funded faculty who sit on NIH review panels. And then they tell me my specific aims for my mock review are due a few days later. Wow, I’m so motivated to write now, thanks!

We need to fundamentally change the way science is funded. We need to change the way politicians and the public view science. We need to quadruple the federal budget’s allocation to science (right now if you add up NASA, NIH and NSF it’s 1.8% of the budget). We need to stop making it so freaking hard for great scientists to do science, stay in science, discover science in the first place.

Unless you guys really don’t want us doing world-changing research. I don’t want to say what my colleague would have done with his grant because I want to protect his anonymity. But let me tell you what I would be able to do with federal funding:

  • I would be able to understand why it is that some women have an easier time getting pregnant than others.
  • I would be able to determine what factors seem to prevent breast, ovarian and endometrial cancer.
  • I would start to disentangle all the psychosocial factors that seem to lead to infertility even though we haven’t been able to figure out the mechanism.
  • I would be able to understand the way in which the mother and fetus negotiate with each other can sometimes contribute to miscarriage.
  • I would be able to provide resources and teach resilience to a whole generation of local girls who don’t have science in their schools, while doing research that helps me, and them, understand their bodies.
  • I would be able to lay the foundation for hormonal contraceptives that are safe and effective for adolescents.
  • I would be able to set up the undergraduate mentoring program I’ve been trying to implement for the last year.

Science captures the imagination of children, it helps us understand our world, it saves lives and protects the planet. We need to stop deluding ourselves that doing the same thing in academic science, but just tightening our belts a bit more, is going to solve the problem. We’ve done worse than sacrificed a generation of scientists, we’ve disgusted the generation below them and reduced our chances of renewal, growth and innovation.

Let me share a tiny bit of life history theory. There is this principle of trade-offs: time and energy used for one purpose cannot be used for another. So if you somatically allocate to growth, for instance, you have less to allocate towards maintenance and reproduction. If a body is very constrained, resource allocation goes haywire: there isn’t enough to support any particular function well, and even critical processes may shut down.

This is how people starve to death.

The cool thing about many aspects of human physiology, however, is that if you flood that system with resources, it’s flexible enough that it can recover. Shutting down does not have to be inevitable. Like the girls I want to study, we are all resilient.

But only if we get resources before we go far enough along the starvation path.

Please check out the storify that Scicurious wrote, and also follow the scientists who were participating, because the conversation continued overnight, into the morning, and is still happening now. And check out Michael Eisen’s blog, as he has some very specific ideas that he will be putting into a post shortly that he has shared about how to force the NIH into a place that creates opportunities for science, rather than contributing to the broken promises of a generation of eager, innovative, smart people.

Challenge Accepted: Non-traditional Assignments in the Classroom

I’ve been teaching a 200-level evolutionary medicine course at my university for four years. Each year I try something a little different to give students more ways to express themselves and to demonstrate their understanding of the material. But these changes have always been within the realm of assignments they and I can easily recognize as college-level coursework: reading responses, group work, presentations. Even as I’ve felt I was being innovative, I was still operating within the confines of work where I thought we all had similar expectations and familiarity.

And yet, I was frequently disappointed in the quality of the work.

The students at the University of Illinois are very bright, and those that have taken my evolutionary medicine course are no exception. So why did we have such a hard time matching our expectations?

The main pedagogical issue causing all of this was that last semester in particular I assigned way too much, without giving students a clear sense of the purpose of the assignments or how they integrated into a broader perspective on the topic. In my head, it made sense to assign two writing assignments a week, among other things, because writing is a thinking process and I wanted to get students to think. To them, the assignments were torture because they had to come up with things to say twice a week.

It was interesting to notice in the style of their assignments that this was the case – they weren’t taking on the assignments to process the material, but to fulfill the assignment and try to say things in the manner that would give them full credit. They thought I was looking to evaluate them on whether they were saying the right things, whereas I was looking to evaluate whether they were actually engaging.

Certain kinds of structures within school system and in the ways in which college students are prepared (or not) to take on what we faculty see as college-level work are part of the reason students write for performance (points or a grade) rather than mastery (engagement or understanding). But I can’t hop in a time machine and undo a minimum of eighteen years of priming for performance-oriented work.

So, even though it is usually wise to change only one major thing in a course per semester, I’m changing two.

Peer and public engagement

I want my students to engage more deeply and regularly with each other, and I find too much group work during class annoys students. I don’t recall how I ended up there last week, but I read this Profhacker post about blog assignments from the summer. The author, Profhacker regular and associate professor Mark Sample, is using the post to describe some of his weariness with blog assignments, and solicit thinking from his peers. However, since I have only used blog assignments a few other times, and in very different ways, my interest was piqued. What I love about the assignment Sample details is that he has given different roles to students in order to achieve his objective of getting them to engage with each other.

So, I’ve borrowed this assignment, with very little tinkering. My students’ reading responses this semester will be blog posts, and you can find them here. Most of their introductory posts are already up, and some of the reading responses too. My main objectives, which I’ve explained to my students, are that I want them to engage with each other, but also with the wider material out there on evolutionary medicine. There are many great anthropology, biology, and medical blogs that intersect with our course material, and having them integrate that into their understanding of the readings will make them better scholars.

I am also excited by the ways writing for a broad audience will change how they think about their assignments. I’ve warned them that I’ll be writing about and tweeting their posts from time to time, and I hope some of you will join me over there in engaging with them in the comments. We’ve discussed the loss of science sections from newspapers, and modern issues in science communication, and so these problems should be on their minds as they grapple with the readings.

The 80/20 rule

The other pedagogical goal I had for the class was to get them to become more internally motivated, and develop some interests and expertise in material relevant to our class. I’ve always liked the idea of incorporating the 80/20 rule into the classroom (80% assigned work, 20% relevant but self-directed work), but wasn’t sure how to do it in the classroom. What I finally decided was that, because this is a MWF class, I’d allocate half of most Fridays to 20% time. What this means is that 20% of their in and out of class time should be devoted to pursuing their own interests relevant to the course, as opposed to just doing the assignments I create and assign.

In order to keep students on track, I plan on having them submit some progress reports along the way, and do a final presentation of their work at the end of the semester. The presentation can capitalize on any expertise they had coming into the class – they can do a skit, write a blog, create a video or podcast, do a powerpoint or write an essay. Or they can do something I haven’t even thought of yet. I’ll be evaluating them on whether they’ve achieved their own goals that they outline in earlier progress reports, and how well they’ve advanced their knowledge.

I have reason to be excited about this crop of students. Already several have stayed after class to share with me their topic ideas, and I can tell they’re enthusiastic. Perhaps my favorite moment, however, was when I joked that playing World of Warcraft probably wouldn’t be an acceptable way to use one’s 20% time.

Not an hour after that class, I received an email from one of my students. It contained this link, and the words:

Challenge accepted.

Of course I had to tweet what he had found, which led to a number of other people getting excited, and my learning about another incidence of disease spread in gaming situations, which I emailed back to him.

Perhaps we’ll be learning more about epidemiological modeling of infectious disease via gaming? Or maybe this will get this student going in a completely different direction. Some of my other students are very interested in global health issues, health disparities, race and gender, and antibiotic resistance.

This assignment could totally flame out. Or it could lead to some amazing projects. I’m pretty sure we’re all going to learn a lot along the way, regardless of how these assignments end up looking from a traditional perspective. I know our chances for success are pretty good though, because I can tell these students are game for something a little different in the classroom this semester.

Back to Work! Autonomy and the Stress of Being a Professor

kiddo standing next to a list of things she wanted to do that day

A list that can and should take precedence over my work list at times. Even if we got stymied at the nap.

I used to have a colleague who thought it was funny to yell “back to work!” whenever he saw me. He would regale me, a young, breastfeeding assistant professor with an infant in tow and a 750 student course, with tales of when he was an assistant professor and would work all day, come home to the kids, and then go back into the office to work after tucking them in. He reminded me that weekends were for research, and holidays were when to really kick into high gear. This advice and teasing came from a very good place, as he wanted to see me hit the ground running and succeed in my job.

I made myself very unhappy those first few years of my job trying to be like this professor: setting aside my life, working during breaks, pumping breastmilk and not getting a lot of sleep. I would go to the East Coast during breaks to see my family and try to get them to watch my child while I sat in front of my computer, miserable. Or if I didn’t get that childcare, I’d spend the day alternately stewing or freaking out about the work I was not doing.

I’m in my fifth year working as an assistant professor. Over three thousand students taught, close to twenty grant proposals rejected (and a few funded). Mistakes, failures, successes, and an increasing degree of frustration over the overwork narratives we construct about academic lives, and the underwork narratives perceived by those outside of higher education.

A few months ago, I was thinking on this colleague and it occurred to me that this person whose life I had modeled mine after was different from me in a few notable ways. He was male, of course. He had gotten tenure years ago, in a different funding climate and with different expectations for tenure. But most importantly, he had a stay at home wife who cared for their children, which freed him to set his schedule almost however he wanted and to work many more hours than is possible for me, as I am one member of a two-professor household.

From there, I realized two things: not only was it unreasonable for me to try and live my life this way, but if he was working that many hours when funding and tenure were easier to obtain, then today’s professors are well and truly screwed.

A raw deal

Many people have been disappointed in Susan Adams’s Forbes column that described being a professor as the least stressful job. David Kroll, Emily Willingham and Scicurious, themselves major players in academia (Kroll has gotten tenure twice as a science professor and is currently a writing professor, Willingham is also a former science professor, Sci is a brilliant and hardworking neuroscience postdoc), have written important responses to her piece on structural and personal levels. Go read them first, you won’t be disappointed. Adams herself has written an addendum and responded to many comments to her post. (Edited to add: Missed one and probably many others! Here is a response by Dr. Isis).

To be honest, I have had a hard time writing this post because I am feeling rather ambivalent about academia these days. I have seen a lot of bad behavior lately, and most of that bad behavior comes from everybody freaking out about how few resources there are to go around.

There is a zero sum attitude that is wearing me out – if you have something, then it means I don’t have that thing, and now suddenly I want that thing so I will do whatever necessary to keep you from having it. Some examples:

  • Departments are so strapped for money that they are competing with each other for students, because most universities allocate department funds by how many students they teach. I’ve heard of some departments ending all cross-listed courses to force their majors to only take their classes, of faculty without expertise in an area of high student interest being forced to create classes in these topics, even when faculty with this expertise exist in other departments. Class sizes are growing, and relief from high teaching loads is harder to get than ever.
  • Service obligations are increasing. Some of this growth is not happening in a thoughtful way as part of a long-range plan, but as a result of a system that is struggling to breathe. If you are drowning, you will grab on to any possible financial or status-increasing opportunity in the hope that one of them will be the piece of driftwood that will help you get just a few more gulps of air.
  • States are behind in payments to public universities, and have been for years. Out of a sense of survival, tuition has increased quite a bit at my university, which has led to more than one student reminding me that they pay my salary and they deserve some particular grade (strangely, it’s always higher than the one they are getting). But don’t we all do this? The more we pay for a service, the more we expect in return.
  • Many public universities are also increasing international admissions. These students are admitted because they can pay a lot of money. The increase in these students is rarely met with an adequate increase in resources to help them thrive at college.
  • Finally, this funding climate affects our research. We are all trying to make do with less money – that means a reduced animal model, or fewer participants recruited. The statistical power of our research is worsened, and sometimes we can’t actually perform enough of our research to determine, for instance, if null results are true or false negatives. We can’t hire as many undergrads or pay for grad students to attend conferences, which worsens their academic preparation. And we are applying to more grants than ever in the hope that one of them hits, which overloads review panels and thus, again, increases service obligations.

We professors got a raw deal. Everyone and everything – students, taxpayers, politicians, science and technology, the advancement of knowledge, saving patients’ lives – that is affected by higher education is also getting a raw deal. It is insane to continue to operate under ever-worsening conditions, doing the same kind of policing and simply increasing our stress and workload.

Unless politicians and taxpayers understand that pushing more kids than ever into college without an equal rise in higher education funding leads to an education with less meaning, unless they understand that laboratories are closing and only certain kinds of scientists willing to put up with the harsh realities of this environment, unless they realize we are giving young people very little to aspire to and dream about when we don’t put money into science and education, whatever it is that higher education is going to morph into in the coming years is not going to be rich, engaging, meaningful or produce research or students that change the world.

So we need to change the minds of folks outside of academia (those like Susan Adams with the half-knowledge that Sci describes). And we need to stop drinking our own Kool Aid.


You all will have to forgive me. Over winter break, my daughter watched The Lorax. A lot. And while the film adaptation leaves a lot to be desired (and adds a hefty dose of sexism absent from the book), it does contain one of my favorite lines ever:

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,

Nothing is going to get better.

It’s not.

I care a whole awful lot. If you’re reading this, you likely do too. I care about my field site, I miss my friends and colleagues and research participants in Poland that I haven’t seen for years because I don’t have the money. I care about the research questions I want to ask in my new local project despite the considerable, maddening obstacles in my way. I care about my students actually having a different experience that is less disappointing than college turned out to be for them. I care about faculty having fuller lives than ones where giving up everything we love is romanticized or enforced.

Maybe, like me, you don’t have tenure or some major administrative position at your institution that can influence policy. Maybe you don’t have a faculty job, but want one someday. I don’t think any of us should wait for some magical moment when we have more power to try and affect change. If we can’t have these jobs and remain human and true to the things that are important to us, I’m not sure the point of these jobs.

I think that is the single, major luxury afforded us, the one way in which Susan Adams was right. We have autonomy, no matter how much the funding climate may make us feel otherwise. We can decide to be different. That doesn’t mean that doing so doesn’t have consequences, but when is doing the right thing a risk-free endeavor?

Figure out how you want this job to look, recognizing whatever constraints you feel you need to recognize (say, a certain number of publications before tenure), and negotiating the others (maybe a certain amount of funding achieved, or a particular class size). Most of the things important to you should be negotiable. If they’re not, you can put together a thoughtful plan, choose to live your life the way you think is right anyway, and see how it goes.

It might not work. Or it might not be sustainable. Or you might be encouraged to do things differently. But if we don’t model something different, not only will we not be the people we want to be as we age, we won’t provide models for all those younger, cooler, motivated, curious, bright, innovative people who are looking to us to figure out what to do with their lives. We can encourage them to be academics, but also writers, entrepreneurs, coaches, novelists, creators, artists, independent scientists.

Just by being exactly who we want to be.

So just who, exactly, are you?

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