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Numbness, Vulnerability, Oppression, Privilege on the Tenure Track

In my early reflections on this year’s Purdue Pre-Tenure Conference for Women, I’ve been thinking a lot about this Louis C.K. interview I watched last week:

And this Brene Brown TED talk we watched at the conference Friday:

I have to fight with myself to not numb out with food or social media or television. And I have to fight with myself to be a bit vulnerable in front of others in an academic climate that doesn’t always celebrate people being their authentic selves.

I guess I can’t help but wonder something about these two things. I wonder how much my privilege as a white, middle class person with Ivy League degrees and a tenure-track job makes it easier to operate against that pull towards numbing out, and how much this privilege makes it easier for me to show vulnerability. Stereotype threat – the fear that one is about to confirm a stereotype associated with their identity – certainly looms above me, as a woman, when I show vulnerability. I know too, as I get older, that shows of emotion or vulnerability make me more likely to be cast aside or viewed as hysterical, because once I am less sexually objectified I will become more invisible, which won’t diminish if I choose to be compliant and motherly.

But my whiteness, and the fact that I am in a tenure-track rather than postdoc or contingent faculty position, gives me a lot of room to express my full range of emotions, with fewer stereotype threat repercussions. Think about how much safer it is for me to express my anger, compared to a black woman or man. Or the ease with which I can cancel a class because of a sick child, compared to a contingent faculty member.

Being white and middle class and straight and having a stable job, but also being a woman, and being explicitly in the “probationary period” of my job, creates a very interesting mix of oppressive and privileged experiences. And I can only hope that those of us with those nice privileges can continue to think about what it means to be an ally to those who don’t.

Survival, On the Roller Derby and Tenure Tracks

Teammate Houchebag cutting her way around a defender, 21 Sep 2013.

Houchebag cutting her way around a defender, 21 Sep 2013. Photo by Tom Schaefges.

I’m having the conversation I always have with my fellow jammer after she does something amazing.

“What exactly are you doing when you get through that wall? What are you doing with your feet?”

Houchebag looks thoughtful, but doesn’t answer.

I persist. “You look like you’re dancing. How do you evade blockers so well?”

Eventually, Houche answers.

“It’s an act of survival. I’m just trying to survive out there.”

Her humble response always leaves me unsatisfied. I think she is so intuitively skilled and hardworking that she just can’t break down what she is doing into motions I can understand. I watch her the next time she jams, and the next. She manages to take the time she needs to get through our opponents’ walls yet carries a sense of urgency.

I am a lot more bullheaded, more panicked when I jam. I have a tendency to run straight at a wall in the hopes of busting it open. I have a lot of physical strength on my side, and I tend to rely on this more than skill when I am scared. When I am scared, my body reverts back to doing what it knows it can do, and it knows it can out-muscle most opponents eventually. So I skate full speed at walls made of powerful bodies, smashing and smashing until one of them falters. I exhaust myself running at the same thing head on, risking – and often incurring – the penalties that put me in the box and leave my team without a point-scoring jammer.

* * *

In the last few years, I’ve noticed parallels between my athletic and my scholarly personality. When I’m scared, I don’t want to feel that fear, so I just start running at whatever I’m scared of in the hopes I can conquer it, and bulldozing into things is a comfortable state for me.

In my first year on the tenure track, I got asked to take on a major service teaching project, when my focus should have been on establishing a research program. Sure! Let me run into this thing that I have confidence doing, and away from the thing that scares me! I also started to collect undergraduates, mentor them, help them graduate with good coursework and experience and letters, and they all get into good graduate and medical schools. I write this blog. Teaching, mentoring and communicating are aspects of my professional career that are comfortable for me. They are also activities that are typically gendered female, and – no surprises here – valued less than academic pursuits that require more direct self-promotion and one-upmanship, like competing for grants and fellowships.

On the one hand, the way I’ve run into these female activities has been a sort of “fuck you” to a sexist profession, an insistence on my part that these are valuable and important deeds. On the other hand, they have been a way for me to work incredibly hard at my job while not facing the impostor syndrome that rises up like bile every time I open my statistics software or a new grant application.

My teaching, mentoring, and writing have made me a good scholar, the kind of person who can think big picture and small. Over the last year I have noticed that people really listen to what I have to say, that specific aims, chosen statistics, and even the directions of committees can change, in part, because of me. A few mentors have appeared, senior women who really want to see me succeed, and they have opened doors or taught me things at key times that have helped me start to have success in grantwriting, and research more generally. I have taught myself more sophisticated statistics, gene expression analyses, and molecular biology.

I have been a tenure-track professor for five years, and only now am I gaining competence and sophistication in the measures that are valued most in this job.

Perhaps I ran too fast towards what made me comfortable, and for me being radical and difficult is being comfortable. But also, perhaps, gaining those skills have made me something more than I would have been if I had done what I should rather than what I wanted.

I just think it’s interesting to note that my gendered female moves towards teaching, mentoring and writing – things we so often advise women against, sometimes so they can pass as male, sometimes so they will not be forced to shoulder a disproportionate service burden – are some of the things that have made me a good thinker and better at my job. But they have only made me better because I forced myself to learn new skills and take new risks.

It’s only working because I got out of my own way.

* * *

This past Saturday was one of the most important bouts of the year, a rematch against our toughest opponent. We have never beat them. In our last bout, I smashed against their unmoving walls until I was too exhausted to be of any use. I threw myself at them again and again, gaining inches and then losing feet. Our other jammers adjusted. They moved fluidly, evading, surviving. I asked to block so I could at least help play some offense.

Since that bout, I have increased my strength and plyometric workouts, my comfort zone of training. But I also finally made myself do two things: add speed and agility workouts, and learn better cutting and hockey stop techniques to make me more evasive and wily on the track. I bought harder wheels, I did extra practices in our off season, I skipped water breaks to keep working on my skills. I watched bouts online and attended clinics.

During warmups on bout day, I was cutting back and forth, doing those fast moves across the track that the other jammers do so effortlessly, and lamenting in my head that I probably wouldn’t do this once the whole bout. It wasn’t muscle memory yet, I told myself, and I knew my tendencies. Instead of give in to this, I let myself recognize the fear, and recognize the skill. The truth was that my body knew how to do it, it had known for a while, and I just had to tell my brain to stop putting false limits on my abilities. I was ready for this bout.

The bout was violent, our opponents so consistently powerful that none of us jammers got a break. But we were getting through. I waited for my blockers to make offense for me, or I waited for holes to open. I juked, I cut. I ran into blockers, but then used the momentum to turn me sideways and slink around them.

We were behind the whole bout, but at various points had chipped away at our opponents’ lead. With only a few minutes to go, I was back up as jammer. Soon into the jam the opposing jammer got sent to the penalty box, which is a huge scoring opportunity, but also meant all four of their blockers would be focused solely on me. Gulp. I got through the first pass thanks to my blockers and made my way around the track, my blockers executing their passive offense well and leaving me space to work.

I approached the wall of four and did something I had never done in a bout before. I cut in one direction, then cut back to hit the wall at a diagonal, aiming for one skater’s hips. The wall of four splintered and I got through.

Five points.

I heard the crowd start to go nuts as I skated around the track for another pass. Approaching the wall, again I cut one way and hit them at a diagonal. Again it splintered and I got through. I fell a little, and ran my way out of the fall.

Another five points.

Again the screaming, it seemed in that moment like the loudest, most beautiful sound I had ever heard. I called it off so our next jammer could benefit from starting with a power jam, as the other jammer was still serving her time in the penalty box.

I looked at the score. 135-134, I think it was. We were finally in the lead. Our other jammers outdid themselves in the last few jams, the whole team playing clean, cool, exceptional derby in those last minutes to secure our win, 148-136.

The win came largely from our blockers’ spectacular defense and the fact that we all played so clean. And I don’t think that one jam means I am forever transformed as a jammer. But I think I am starting to understand what Houche – our clutch jammer who went back to back in the last two jams to win it – meant when she talked about survival.

Survival is about building up what you’re good at as well as building up what you’re afraid of. It’s about trusting your abilities while being relentless about improving them. Survival is letting yourself get comfortable with uncertainty, with being both relaxed and tense, present and anticipating.

I know we often hear that we need to “survive and thrive,” and I hear that alongside the mythical “work/life balance” as well. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think aspiring to a pretend life of “thriving” or “balance” is nearly as stimulating as aspiring to the biggest, boldest life you possibly can. Big, bold lives are scary, they are a lot of work, and you spend a lot of time wondering if you’re doing it wrong. But there is no bigger rush than when it goes right.

Survival may sound like a cruel word, but it’s what we do. Surviving is exhilarating, it means getting to live another day, to face your challenges and make decisions about your life. For tenure-track faculty with identities that are underrepresented in our fields, it’s about the most radical thing any of us can do.

Some of my team cheering right at the buzzer of our win. I'm the one jumping.

Some of my team cheering right at the buzzer of our win. I'm the one jumping. Photo by Tom Schaefges.

This post was written on the eve of the Purdue Pre-Tenure Conference for Women, which starts tomorrow. This was written to help me think about the panel I will be on Thursday at 11:15am.

New iPhone App Helps Parents Get the Right Vaccine Information

When I was pregnant with my daughter in 2007/2008, the anti-vaccine movement was strong and hadn’t been fully debunked. My daily – hourly – thoughts revolved around the fear of a C-section. I was also consumed with doubts as to what we would do once I gave birth and my husband and I were responsible for meeting the baby’s daily needs. How would we keep a helpless human alive with no prior experience?

A friend I trusted recommended a book about vaccines – one of those “what doctors don’t want you to know” deals. I bought it and read it, and even as a scientifically literate person, was somewhat swayed by what the book said. My husband and I talked it over, and from what we could tell, the best decision to make about vaccines was that we would agree to all of them, but just that we would space them out. At the time, we were worried that too many vaccines at once might not be good for a newborn immune system. We had never had a baby before, and the prospect was terrifying. Every decision we made seemed dramatic and life-threatening. Our pediatrician turned red with anger when we told him what we wanted to do, but he assented.

This is a major confession. I was one of those people who infuriated her doctor with an alternate vaccine schedule. I know I will lose serious science cred by daring to say so. But I think it’s important for me to admit that this was my previous thinking on vaccines, because regardless of what you may think of me, I’m pretty confident I’m not an idiot.

Why do so many non-idiots get swayed by the anti-vaccination movement? Well, there were celebrities on the bandwagon who were given plenty of chances to share their thinking. At the time, there was supposed data linking autism and vaccines, since shown to be faked. There is the way that our culture suffuses parents, especially mothers, with fear during pregnancy and childhood because they are made to feel as though all their decisions will decide the fate of their kiddo, from ridiculous limits on food and exercise for pregnant women to the pressure to ensure perfect mother-infant attachment upon birth.

And finally, there is the fact that a lot of us harbor some distrust of medicine. This one comes from the fact that most oppressed groups have had pretty horrible experiences with medical science, from twilight sleep to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. And given my expertise, I was able to read scores of original science articles demonstrating that current obstetric care was not good, nor was it that evidence-based. With my growing skepticism of the state of obstetric care, a skepticism of infant care seemed natural.

A lot has changed in the last few years. One of the turning points, to my mind, was Seth Mnookin’s 2011 book A Panic Virus, which identified the culture that contributed to the anti-vaccination movement, explained the sometimes-problematic history of vaccines, and fully and conclusively debunked the autism-vaccine link. In the last few years, I have noticed that derision towards anti-vaxxers has grown. And some anti-vaxxers are certainly willful in their ignorance.

But many are not. Many of them are just I was – scared, not really knowing any better, and wanting the right information to make the right choices for my child. There are moms being told not to eat soft cheese or allow their heart rates to exceed 140 beats per minute. There are pregnancy forums with people endlessly debating different induction protocols and sharing horrifying experiences with epidurals, episiotomies, hypnobirthing, hospitals, homes, standing or sitting births. It’s hard to parse our fears for our kids with the actual evidence for what interventions help or harm them.

A friend of mine just pointed me to a new app that I hope will bridge this gap, at least when it comes to childhood vaccines. The Vaccine Education Center at CHOP, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, has just released a new iPhone/iPad app called “Vaccines On the Go: What You Should Know.” The VEC is directed by Dr. Paul Offit, co-creator of the rotavirus vaccine and preeminent scholar and educator on vaccine safety and efficacy.

Unfortunately, I can only view the promotional video and not test out the app myself, because I own Android machines. The good news is that CHOP is considering options for an Android version of this app. Since most US and worldwide smartphone sales are for Android operating systems (I looked it up, since I was a little upset that I couldn’t actually try it out myself), this means the app could have a greatly expanded reach in the future.

Websites and apps that provide accessible, evidence-based answers to parents’ questions are big ways that science can push back on misinformation. And I wonder if building trust in parents in turn helps build that trust in kids. The more transparent we make scientific thinking and information, the more science literate, rather than science averse, people may emerge from the debate.


If You Think Giving a Child Poorer Options is Good for All Children, You Are a Bad Person: Not Actually a Manifesto

Something has been sitting in my craw for a while since reading that clickbait “manifesto” on how people who put their kids in private school are bad people. The author’s gleeful and unapologetic anti-intellectual attitude for one (I didn’t read any books AND I’M TEH AWSUMZ!), troubling coming from someone writing on education. The claim that rich kids (the author’s operating assumption of what kind of student predominates in private school) make public schools better because money equals better (a point disemboweled neatly by the always-brilliant Dr. Emily Willingham). Barftastic both, but I still couldn’t identify the sense of unease the whole thing gave me.

Then, I happened to be hanging out with my dear friend Dr. Anne Jefferson (of Highly Allochthonous, also a badass geology professor at Kent State). Anne is the one who made the connection to something Dr. Isis said recently around Open Access. Dr. Isis made the point that the most radical thing minority scientists can do is get tenure, which means not always (if ever) prioritizing the Open Access movement. Pushing minority scientists to do this ignores their experiences around inequity and discrimination, and what they need to do to succeed and help other underrepresented scientists succeed. Anne followed this up by saying no movement is worth sacrificing disenfranchised or oppressed people on some principle of a “greater good.”

That is why this value judgment about public versus private education, a thinly veiled iteration of the Mommy Wars, is wrong. Children can’t give consent, they live their lives at the whims of their caretakers. One of the reasons kids often develop picky eating habits, or push back on bedtime, or misbehave at school comes from their trying to find some way, any way, to get out from under the oppression of being a constant second class citizen. Once you see how the author’s whole argument is that we should improve education at the cost of kids, it becomes ridiculous.

When it comes to any movement – open access, public education, feminism, or others – do we put the burden on the backs of the most disenfranchised, or those with power and privilege? And how do we lift up all kids and give them better educational experiences?

Being a kid ambassador

My kid learning about mammals through Dr. Katie Hinde’s Mammals Suck March Madness last year

In the case of kids, parents play many roles, just one of them being ambassador. Ambassadors screw up and don’t always quite get the job right of course, but you’re supposed to do the best job you can amplifying the voice of who you represent. Maybe an even better metaphor would be kid union steward.

As far as I can tell, my kid wants me to build the best life I can for her, and to put her in situations that help her grow, that challenge her, but most of all respect her as a human being. Her current school, a private school and research lab affiliated with my university, does that. She is treated with respect as an inherently good person and learner not because it’s private but because it subscribes to Reggio Emilia’s project-based approach.

I am a complete convert to this approach because I’ve seen the wonderful ways it manifests across preschool, kindergarten and elementary education. And I’ve seen what these teachers and this approach have done for my kiddo. The way that school works directly contradicts the kinds of pedagogy we associate with academically “rigorous” schools. Yet my kiddo is internally motivated and explores her interests while advancing in literacy, science, art and math. She is only five, yet is on the brink of understanding fractions, just because they seem kind of cool to her. She once spent three days with her friends building a “pony house” out of recycled materials, and ended up putting a lot into the basic needs of an animal AND basic architectural structures. She reads everything — labels, signs, menus, books. And folks, I love my kid, but I don’t think she is a genius. I just think that when learners are treated respectfully and given resource and attention, they tend to figure out a lot on their own.

Rather than see my role as my kid’s ambassador as one that puts her in situations for supposed benefit of all kids but not necessarily optimal for her, I would rather make the kid ambassador job easier for all the other parents who want access to the right education for their kids. I’ve done plenty of those things, which I won’t document here because it would be obnoxious to do so, but examples include working with your school to lower tuition, or expand classrooms to increase access. You can also learn about the broader historical context of why schools work the way they do, and evidence-based ways to improve it. Because our school is university-affiliated, the director’s job is only half directing the school: the other half of her job is outreach and training with public schools. Supporting this school actually does support public education in our local school districts.

My educational awakening

I remember what it was like to not be respected as a learner, and to have quiet obedience prized over understanding the material. When I was younger, I acted out in response to this oppression. In my Montessori preschool and kindergarten I was constantly sent to time out for being disruptive. In first grade I regularly pretended to be sick to get out of class (I have vivid memories of pushing my stomach into my desk until it hurt so that I could go see the nurse). Second grade doesn’t count, because I really was sick all the time and was hospitalized a few times, so I wasn’t even in school that much. Then by third grade I was stuffing my assignments into my desk and reading my own books because the worksheets were so dreadfully boring.

This experience in third grade might have been the most humiliating of my elementary school years. After weeks of crumpling up assignments and stuffing them in my desk for one class, a change in desk assignments for another class that met in the same room led to the discovery of my discarded work. A parent-teacher conference quickly followed, and my balled-up assignments smoothed out and stapled together. My punishment was having to do all of the worksheets after school.

That same year, I was tested and placed into the gifted program, still a public school institution. I stayed in the gifted program from fourth through sixth grade, until our school district cut the program because they didn’t have the money. My parents were involved, and tried really hard to save it. But in seventh grade it was back to regular junior high.

I loved the gifted program I was in, because it was the first real experience I had where I was respected as a person, where it was assumed I was smart and could do stuff. Now the goofing off I did made me precocious rather than disruptive. Teachers found ways to help me change my behavior without forcing or punishing me into submission – but I was also a lot less obnoxious while there. We had endless opportunities to be creative with the ways we learned. We were trusted.

Respect and trust are in short supply in some school settings, because these are the hardest things to give kids when there are a whole lot of them and only a few of you… particularly if you’re under additional stressors to make these students perform a particular way in a test so you don’t lose your job.

Lifting up all kids

My kiddo spent a lot of time in front of this kaleidoscope projector at the Monterey Bay Aquarium this summer, just trying to figure out how it worked.

Back when one of my research projects involved working in a public school, I was given that school district’s curriculum guide. The “science” section had only four bullet points, which boiled down to:

-Learn to use lab equipment safely when testing hypotheses

-Describe interactions between people and the environment, including space exploration

-Know the basic cell structures and functions

-Observe the properties of energy: heat, light and sound

Fine arts was the real loser with only three points, where phys ed had six points, eight for math, and fifteen for literacy. Fifth grade is a big testing year and so the teachers have to focus all their attention on literacy and math. I’m sure they’d love to do more with art and science, but their school could lose out if they don’t teach to the test.

Science, or the scientific method, is one of the major “ways of knowing” children use to interact with their environment and stimulate their natural curiosity about the world. Yet throughout a child’s educational experience, at least in the US, it receives very little attention. It’s no surprise that over time so many children develop an idea that science is for a specific set of people – a set that rarely includes them.

My daughter’s school experience is inherently scientific: she has some guidance, through the semester’s main topic (this semester it’s “trees”), but then it’s up to her to inquire and learn about the world. The kids get put into interest groups after a few weeks of giving them time to feel out what they find interesting about that semester’s topic. Then the main projects of the semester are motivated by what the kids want to learn and do. Their exploration tends to involve the scientific method in some way.

While we’re working on respect and trust for all children, it would be nice to prioritize science as a way of knowing that helps defend curiosity against boredom, and provide a perspective to children that all kinds of knowledge is accessible to them. We should be working towards a pro-intellectual, pro-science, pro-child educational system. Pitting parents or kids against each other, or wearing a lack of an education as a badge of honor rather than something one might want to independently overcome, is not the way to get there.

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