Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Groups That Work

Do you like to have students work in groups in your classes? There are many advantages to having students work in groups in class. You can get them to “do” instead of just watch. For physical science and engineering classes, getting them to actively engage with material can be the difference between actual learning and not. I use this technique every year in every class I teach because (1) they actually try and fail in class, where I can see and support their learning in a productive direction, (2) they learn better when they learn from each other, (3) sometimes there are projects or other big things that benefit from a group working on it together, and (4) group and team work is an essential life skill. Very few jobs are done completely solo, and creating a bunch of smart people who can’t interact with other people doesn’t help make the world a better place.

Every year when I present my syllabus and say that students will be in groups and work together, at least one student grumbles that they “hate working in groups.” They cite that they “always” get put with someone who doesn’t pull their weight and end up doing everything. Many students fear having their work diluted or giving someone else credit. These are all real concerns, but they are not fixed or helped by not doing group work. Instead, what needs to happen is that students need to be guided in making their groups work.

Over the years I have developed a process for forming and managing groups to make them pretty functional. For many of the classes, the students form good working relationship. For some, they are long-lasting support structures for students throughout their undergraduate careers. Here in my process:

  1. Give them points. The group work and functionality must be used in the grading scheme. Students must be able to earn points for working effectively in their groups. I typically have 10% of the final grade in these classes be from the assessment of a student’s work in their group. This 10% comes from the other group members – they assess each other. Thus, the students have control over part of the grade for their group-mates. This incentivizes good group behaviors, as 10% can majorly affect the final grade of a person in the class.
  2. Ask them about themselves. Do a student survey to help you to form the groups. In the sciences, we have many groups that are minoritized, like women, Black, Latinx, and Indigineous people. The point of the group is to create a support structure for the students. It really helps if the students have stuff in common. One easy way is to have women work with women, Black students with other Black students, and so on. This is a best practice for group work shown from education researchers (here). But, how to you get this information? You give the students a personal survey. In order to allow students to earn your trust, and to help build a little self-confidence and self-worth into themselves as well, give them a survey. Start out with questions about why they are in the class, what they think this topic will teach them, and how it will help them and possible the world. Why do they study science? What good can come from their studies and ultimate work? These questions both help you get to know them quickly, and orient their feelings about the class – it isn’t just about learning science – it is ultimately to make the world a better place. Remind them int he survey that you want to get to know them, so you can teach them better. The last questions are about their identity, like prefers pronouns, gender, and race.
  3. Get some data. Groups work best when there is a good mix of high, medium, and low performers together. High performers can get practice explaining their thought process to others, which reinforces concepts they are mastering. Lower performers are able to learn from their peers. In order to get this information, you either need information from prior classes in math and science or you need to do an assessment. I typically stick with a math assessment. I check basic trigonometry, algebra, maybe some integral and differential calculus. Intro classes in many fields have calibrated assessment tools, such as a force concept inventory, but they are long, and not available or appropriate for all classes.
  4. Make the groups consciously. Use the survey and the assessment to make groups. I usually make groups of 3. Each group has a high performer, a low performer, and a medium performer. Put the highest low performers with the highest high performers. Extremely high with extremely low often does not work well. Make sure under-represented folks are together. I put all people who identify as women together. The best is if all 3 identify as women. If you need to mix the women with someone who identifies as a man, I suggest pairing two women with one man. If there are enough under-represented folks, do the same.
  5. Let them set the expectations. On the first day of class where the groups are being employed, have them start with an exercise in getting to know each other. This is not a cheesy game – this is a discussion about what the expectations are for group-member actions and behaviors. The assignment for the first group work is to answer several questions about what makes a good group member and what makes a bad group member. They should articulate it and write it down and turn it in. After that conversation, they are asked to make a rubric on how they will decide the points to give each other at the end of the semester. They turn these assignments in, and I always save them. At the end of the semester, I return the documents on good and bad behaviors and their group rubric, so they can grade each other.
  6. Make weekly or daily group work. Give them time in class or discussion to work together in these groups. They will form bonds over struggling. The instructors (including grad student and undergrad instructors) should go around and check on groups to see where they are struggling. You can help 3 students at a time, and you can check on the group dynamic. Make sure no one is being left behind or that someone isn’t working independently. In person, this is pretty easy to do walking around the room. In remote sessions, using break out groups and dropping into them to see how they are working, asking questions, and making sure they are talking is a good practice. It is more likely on remote classes that he students will work independently, so poking into the groups is very important.
  7. Let them be the (fair) judge. Before the end of the class (or last group meeting, if switching), return the original rubric document to students to remind them of their group’s expectations and rubric for grading. They should be directed to complete an assignment where they grade themselves and their group mates. It is very important that they grade themselves in addition to grading each other, as this gives a benchmark for their grades for their peers. When groups work well, it is expected that they will be awarded all these points. In some ways, these are free points, and depending on the fraction of the grade, they can bring up low grades for students who are good group members, earnestly trying and participating, but struggling with the material.

Well, this is the method I have been employing for group work. It works about 90% of the time, which is about the same frequency that students are reasonable humans. There is that old rule of thumb that 10% of the people take up 90% of your time or inbox, or what-have-you. Makes sense that the same is true for groups. Some students complain (especially in remote situations) that having these permanent groups does not allow for them to get to know other students in the class. Although that doesn’t bother me overly much, you can switch the groups half way. That would allow students to get to know two groups of peers. They can grade each other before switching and make a new rubric with the next group.

If there are other modifications or best practices that others use, I would love to hear. Always looking for ways to improve my teaching and training. Comment or write a post yourself.


Getting back to classes soon, and people are updating and crafting syllabuses. I recently sent some extra information to the department about syllabus best practices. I definitely have prior posts on how to think about your syllabus. Specifically, your syllabus is your contract with the students! And, that you can use your syllabus to help set expectations!Here are a couple new considerations on the topic that I hope are helpful. Comments are welcome!

Give as much information as you can. You cannot over-communicate in your syllabus. I know this can make them long, but again, if it is your contract and a way to convey your goals, expectations, and ideals for the class, what is the risk of saying it clearly? What is the risk of not saying it clearly?

Have a clear grade scheme. I only started doing this a few years ago, when I realized that I wasn’t, and I was asking the students for a lot of trust by not communicating my typical standards for assigning letter grades. Since our society has trust-issues with women, I figured I better be clearer. It is a matter of transparency of to tell your students how many points they would need to get an A, B, or C.
I have heard all the usual justifications for trying to keep students in the dark: “I am nice, and I want to help them by adjusting the cut-offs,” or, “I just don’t know until the end where these cut-offs will be.” But I think that is unfair to students. The good news is that you CAN do change the cut-offs and shift them lower when assigning the grades – you just can’t shift them higher. Making these changes doesn’t preclude you from telling them what your typically do up front. You can always make the grade scale more lenient (not more strict), but it is important to communicate clearly to the students what the expectations are to begin with for getting an A, B, and C.

Inclusion, Equality, and Dignity Statement. We added a section on Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity recently when our campus was hit some gone racism graffiti, and the students rightly pointed out we were not doing enough. One of the graffiti writings was found in a bathroom stall in our building, and we didn’t realize it was there. We have created mechanisms for reporting about the climate, facilities, and community interactions. To communicate that to our classes, we encourage the following syllabus language: 

Everyone in this class is an equally-valued member of this university and our community. We expect you to treat your classmates as honored colleagues in the collective endeavor we are all involved in: to understand the natural world and use that understanding to improve our society.

In particular, bias against or denigration of anyone in our class because of their gender or how they express it, their sexual orientation, their religion, their national origin, their race or ethnicity, or a disability they may have will not be tolerated. If you are the target of this sort of bias or if you witness it, please report it directly to me and I will take swift action. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to me, you may report it anonymously to the Physics Department at this link.

The Value of Failure. A lot of learning in science is through trial and error. Error is the same as failure, and it is a vital feature of learning, yet students don’t like it. It is uncomfortable and scary. They are often not used to it, if they are typically high achieving. I have a very long section of my personal syllabus devoted to expectations for the class, and these concepts play prominently. I paste in my words below, in case you want to use any or all of it. 

Living Document. As things adjust and change, you can update your syllabus. Indeed, you should and you should continually notify the students in your class about these updates. I recommend posting updated versions to your online communication and course management software (Blackboard or similar) with a note to say that the new version supersedes the previous one. The best practice for transparency would be to keep up all the different versions to be accessed by the students.

Boilerplate Language: Every university has boilerplate on a variety of topics from cheating, excused absences, or other things. These really need to be in the syllabus for completeness. Again, it’s a contract – people need to know what they are agreeing to.

What do you think? Comment or post.

Expectations. Below is a quote from my recent syllabus on expections including language on the value and need for failure and learning from mistakes in science. Hope these help.

EXPECTATIONS: I expect that you are committed to doing the work to understand the material of this course. I also expect that the level of work each person needs to commit for each part will vary from person-to-person and from topic-to-topic. The role of the instructors (Jenny and the TA) is to act as your coaches to guide you in your learning. Ultimately, the learning process belongs to you alone. Consider your learning much like how you would learn a new physical skill, such as shooting hoops, playing an instrument, or a new dance move. You should practice on your own and you can self-assess your progress. I will help you, but I cannot do it for you, just as Simone Biles’s gymnastics coach does not jump on the beam to show her how it is done – I cannot really show you how to do these things. You just have to try, fail, and try again.

Some students find this type of teaching annoying because they want to lean back and let the professor drone on in lecture classes. These students often think that I am not working because they are doing all the work. This is simply not true. Instead of lecturing to all, but missing learning moments for most, I am coaching you each one-on-one to make you all stronger. I may challenge you differently in order to bring you each individualized instruction. The other reason why I know this type of teaching is more work for me (not less, as it might seem) is because many professors also find this type of teaching difficult. It is far easier to write lectures and deliver them to sleeping students than to have to think on your feet and answer questions on the fly to help you.

Practice. In order to become an expert at something, you need to practice for 10,000 hours.  In any Physics class, we typically expect 10 hours of work per week on each class. Depending on your level coming into this class you may not need to spend 10 hours per week on this class, or you may need to spend more. The class is 13 weeks long, so that is approximately 130-150 hours per class. By the time you complete the physics major, you will have taken 8-10 lecture classes. The minimum Physics major doesn’t make you an expert in physics, but doing a Ph.D. will give you those expert hours (5-6 years working 40-60 hours per week). You can estimate all these hours and see for yourself. Regardless, in order to learn, master, and ultimately become and expert, you need to practice. The goal of the homework, in class work, and other problems is to give you the practice you need to master the work. That is a major benefit of the Active Learning Style.

Failure. There is no problem with trying and failing, as long as you learn something. In fact, in science, your goal is often to test a model, theory, or hypothesis and try to get it to FAIL. When it fails, and how it fails, teaches us something. Thus, as scientists, we strive for failure. We do not work to “prove” anything. That is a one-way ticket to false truths, we work to disprove models, theories, ideas. Trying to prove theories leads to results that are not reproducible and falsifying data. These do not help science move forward. We learn far more from good, solid, scientifically reliable failure than we do from FAKE proof. For instance, in physics, Newtonian mechanics works for many problems, but not all. Instead we need relativity. Without relativity, we cannot have satellites or other communications that move at the speed of light. In fact, Newton got it wrong – he failed, but his failure still works in many cases and is still taught today. Some people get caught up in failure, success, grades, being a hero, but in science, there is really no such thing. So, be brave, try your best, failing is just nature’s way of telling us what is real and true.

Cumulative nature of science, learning, teaching. If you notice, all the exams are cumulative. This means that they cover all the materials up to that point in the class. So, exam 1 covers the materials in homework 1-4, exam 2 covers the materials in homework 1-8, exam 3 covers 1-11, and the final covers everything, too. Physics, and science in general, is cumulative. We cannot separate what we learn in the second half from what we learn in the first half any more than you would be able to do that for a foreign language. 

In fact, the way we structure our entire physics major curriculum (all the classes you take) is set up to build one on top of the other. When you learn quantum mechanics, they will assume you understand and remember what you learned in this course! The concepts carry forward, and you learn them deeper, with new mathematical tools, and it reinforces the concepts and skills you learned from previous courses. Our curriculum is iterative, much like real science, so you will also see several topics several times in new contexts and with new jargon and concepts attached. Keeping in mind the big picture as well as the local activities you are doing in your current class will help you to understand why we do things the way we do. 

Of course, we can always improve our teaching and curriculum in the department, so if you can think of something that would make this class or the physics major better, please don’t hesitate to let me know. I am the department associate chair. I am also on the undergraduate climate committee. You can also talk to Prof. Jack Laiho (lead academic advisor) and Prof. Eric Schiff (the department chair). Getting to know the leadership in the department is a good way to affect change for yourself and your peers for years to come.

Science and being a scientist. Finally, many of the questions and hands-on work both in class and the laboratory are open-ended. I may not know all the answers. Being a scientist is not about knowing the answers… it is about knowing how to find the answers. As a card-carrying physicist, I have confidence that I know how to find the answers through direct trial and error experimentation. My job in this class is to teach you how to find the answers for yourselves. The answers may or may not be available on the internet. You will get the thrill of discovering how science works, if you follow the process and make the discoveries in class and in lab for yourselves (as a team). 

Another stereotype of scientists is the “lone scientist.” Scientists do not work alone. They do not work in a vacuum (not even astronauts). They work with others in collaboration. You are in groups in this class and in lab because learning to collaborate is an essential element to learning and doing science. Even a theorist coming up with a new theory must talk to people, get the idea out there, and test the predictions with experimentalists.

One of my biggest pet peeves is how society doesn’t associate science with creativity. Part of the reason is in how we teach (standard) science classes. We often teach that there is a “right” and a “wrong” answer. For those of you who like this aspect of science (the ability to be right), I have good and bad news. The good news: your homework problems will still have a right answer. The bad news: cutting edge science, which is still under debate, may not. This is where a lot of scientific ingenuity and creativity comes into play. 

Finally, people also think that you must be brilliant to be a physicist, but instead you must be smart. They are not the same thing. Smart people are observant, make conceptual connections, think creatively, and are hard working. You must practice your craft. Many seemingly “brilliant” people are actually very hardworking, acquiring knowledge through practice, failure, and retrying, in order to appear brilliant when the occasion arises. I encourage you to work on these skills: hard work, creativity, observing, making connections, thinking conceptually. These are skills, and they can always be improved with practice, and they can be applied broadly.

I am really excited about teaching you in this course. I endeavor to do things in the class to help you struggle well, so that you learn. It is the most important part to me – that you learn. I am here to coach you. Also, I am admittedly human, so if I make a mistake, please let me know (with kindness). I am looking forward to working with you all!

Teaching: Working with grad TAs

Note: I have been gone, but I have some things to say, and this is a forum where I have lots of space (unlike Twitter), so I will use this space to collect my thoughts. Maybe they will be helpful to you again, as a refresher, or for the first time. Enjoy – or not. You don’t have to read it.

I am getting nervous. In less than two weeks, I am walking into a classroom in a new university, a new department, and a course I have never prepared before. I am having nightmares – stress dreams – about teaching. I have had two already where I walk into class without my syllabus or anything on the first day. Those dreams definitely kicked me in the pants to get on top of my syllabus. Syllabus done – check – so we definitely have something to do on the first day. Nightmares subsiding.

After the learning goals, calendar for the class, and syllabus, I think about my teaching team. This semester, I have a small class, and will have 0.5 teaching assistants assigned to me to help with grading and teaching. At my new school, the TA has assigned office ours in a general learning space (awesome!) so they can help any student who comes in. Also, unlike my old university, the TA is responsible for a recitation or discussion session each week for the class – DOUBLE AWESOME! But, also a lot of responsibility for this person. Honestly, I am not sure what to recommend for this person. Please comment if you have suggestions.

Apart from that, I have some pretty clear ideas for how I would like my TA to work with me in the class. Each year, I write a set of expectations for the TA, and we meet to discuss it in person before the class starts. It somehow gets longer every year – mostly due to prior failures making me realize that I need more information. Here is what I say:

Physics 216 is the second physics course in the physics major and many of the students are freshmen. This is an exciting course because not only do we get to introduce the students to the world of physics, but we also help to set the tone for their career in the department for the next 4-5 years. Please take a look at the syllabus to get the information on the course and the expectations and notes I wrote for the students. Also, send me edits, when you find errors or typos!

As with many of our courses, the students have a variety of backgrounds. Some have passed out of Calculus I and II, some are taking it concurrently. I will be going over a lot of the math in class, but many will know it already. The diversity in their math skills and background makes teaching physics courses challenging.

For the graduate TAs: This is a HALF TEACHING ASSIGNMENT, so I expect you will need to put in 7-8 hours per week most weeks for this assignment. There may be weeks with more time (exam weeks). There will be weeks with less. The active learning class is Tuesday and Thursday 12:30 – 1:50 pm, and I expect you to be there during the class. This will be a bit less than 3 hours per week. There will be some grading of the daily warm-ups and in class work; this is basically graded on participation. There is also one long-answer homework problem that needs to be graded each week. All the grading should take only about an hour each week. You will also need to run a recitation for the class for one hour per week and the typical, required two hours per week in the Physics Clinic, which will serve as your office hours.

Expectations: I expect you to be respectful of the students and coach them in their learning. You are not to do the work for them. Coaches instruct and guide – they do not teach by doing it for the student. In class and discussion section, encourage the students to work together and to get up and try it on the boards. Please approach the students with the mindset that they can learn from failure. Failure is nothing to be afraid of and will ultimately help them to succeed, as long as they learn from their mistakes. Many cultures and societies associate failures with shame, and this stigma inhibits learning. I would like you to encourage a positive, growth mindset around failure, so that students take risks with their learning.

I enjoy teaching in a team atmosphere. If you want to make a change, notice good or bad things in the class, or have other suggestions, please let me know. I will likely ask for a 15 minute debrief each week, so we are on the same page about the class, schedule, materials, and students. Please let me know when a good time for these weekly meetings is, so we can put it in our calendars.

Your job is to:

  • Let me know all your information including your office location, office number, and email address. I will put this information on the syllabus.
  • This course is an active, team-based learning course. The students will do physics every day in the class. So, you will need to be there for every class. In the class, you will walk around and help students with their group work. There are about 10 students right now, but I am hoping a few more students might come into the class.
  • Office Hours: My office hours will be in the evening of Mondays (5-6:30pm) and Tuesdays (7-8:30pm). Not all students will be able to make those times, so it would be good to have additional times with someone familiar with the class. I will let students know when your scheduled times in the Physics Clinic are, so that they can come to you specifically. I will likely call these your “office hours” because that is the language I am used to using. Please let me know as soon as possible what time your office hours are, so that I can inform the students on the syllabus and Blackboard page.
  • Grading: There are two main types of assignments for this class: homework and in-class work. The homework is mostly online, using a system called I will get you a free account, so you can see what the students are watching for videos, what the problems look like, and their homework, so you can help them. The daily, in-class work will be organized for each group in a folder assigned to that group. The work will be distributed and picked up using that folder. Graded work should also be distributed in the folder.
    1. Homework: The students have three kinds of homework: Online Prelecture videos and quizzes in FlipItPhysics (, online long-answer questions in FlipItPhysics, and long-format written homework. The online assignments are automatically graded online.

The one long-answer question per week is the one that I would like you to grade. Please write a complete solution to the problem that I can scan and post to the website. Using your solution, please assign and distribute 10 points to the problem to use it as a rubric for the grading. Using your rubric, please grade the long-answer questions. If you find that many students are missing large sections of the solution you think should be there – resulting in missing points for correct answers, come to see me. We can discuss if the students need to show those steps or not. In general, I would prefer for students to demonstrate all their thought processes in writing. If you have questions about the grading or for a particular homework many students are doing poorly, please come to talk to me.

You might find that the students have worked out a different solution than yours. This is an awesome part of physics, but it can be a pain for grading. If there is a different solution, which is correct, please make a new rubric for that solution, so that students can earn points for their correct answer.

In general, when grading, please treat the students how you would want to be treated. Use your rubric and add helpful comments if they had a conceptual error or just a minor math mistake. Strive to be fair and coach them.

  1. In class work: In addition to homework, there are two other types of in-class work that need grades recorded: warm-up problems and daily group work. The warm-ups will be slips of paper where students will work on logic puzzles, basic math, or other problems. The daily group work will be worksheets for students to work on together in class. Since the class meets twice per week, there will be two of these each week. These will both need grades from you.

When grading these in class assignments, you will not need to grade for accuracy – please just grade for participation. Did the students make an attempt to complete the problems? Did all the group members put their name on the sheet? The grade should mostly depend on if the students completed the assignment. Sometimes it might be too much for some students or groups to complete in the class, so it doesn’t need to be fully complete, but it does need to be attempted. Each week, you will be responsible for collecting and grading the in-class work.

  • Grade Records: After grading the work and before returning it to me, you must record the grades of every person in an Excel spreadsheet.
    1. Save the spreadsheet as P216-S2020-MM-DD.xls, where the MM-DD is the date in (MM = month as a two-digit number, and DD = day as a two-digit number).
    2. Every week, open up the last spreadsheet and put in the new grades.
    3. Then, save the spreadsheet with a new name with the new date. Send the spreadsheet to me, and I will save it, too.
    4. By the end of the semester, we will both have numerous spreadsheets all saved. By saving multiple copies, we are less likely to lose the grade data. Losing the grades is very bad, so this method will allow us to not have this problem. Also, it will keep us organized each week.
    5. I will not use the online gradebook. I cannot make it work, and I absolutely hate it. If you want to put the grades into Blackboard, we can discuss how best to do this, but I have never been successful with it in the past and cannot guarantee success this year.
  • Recitation/Discussion Session: This is the first year for me to have a TA who runs a recitation section. I would like to discuss with you how you want to run this session, and what you want the students to learn there. Do you want it to be review? Do you want to lecture? Do you want it to be enrichment – doing harder problems with more challenges? Do you prefer to let them work on homework in groups and solve problems? Let’s sit down and discuss, and we will make a plan, and I will re-write this.
  • Exams: This course has three midterm exams and a final. They will be long answer. I will proctor them in class and grade them myself.

Midterm Exam Dates:

Thursday, February 13th, in class

Thursday, March 12th, in class

Thursday, April 23rd, in class

Final Exam Date (subject to change) :

Tuesday, May 5th, 3-5pm, in classroom

All exams are cumulative. It might be useful to hold extra office hours during the week of the exams. Please let me know if you are doing this, so I can announce it. Hopefully, we will be able to respond to the students who need it.

  • Substitute for me in class. There will be times when I am away to give talks or due to illness. During those times, you will be required to fill-in for me in class. I will give you the warm-ups and daily work copies for the class before, so that you will be able to run the class the same way I usually do.
  • Pay attention. If you notice a student having a particularly hard time or not attending class, please let me know as soon as possible. I will attempt to contact the student and make a meeting. Developmentally, college-age students can suffer from depression or anxiety – often for the first time ever. It often manifests as missed classes or assignments. If a student is struggling in this way, we have an obligation to reach out.
  • Wise criticism. Please grade and offer advise using wise criticism. This means to let the student know that you think they can do it, show them what they got wrong, and offer suggestions for improvement. The most important part is letting them know that you have confidence in their ability to learn the material and that failing is not a bad thing – especially in class. In fact, it is better if you can see them while they make a mistake, so you can help them see it. For instance, if they are struggling with dividing fractions, be specific about the criticism, so they can improve. Do not offer general platitudes or passive aggressive comments.
  • Harassment. Harassment or bullying will not be tolerated in the class. People need to feel free to try and fail in order to learn. If you see someone treating students or students treating each other in a negative way that affects someone else’s learning, please let me know as soon as possible. I will address the situation. If one of the groups is not working at all, please let me know, so I can adjust them.

So, what do you think about this? Do you do something similar? What am I missing? I’d love to hear from you with suggestions or edits. Feel free to comment below.

Get Out – part 2

SHirleyJacksonThis post is part 2 of an N-part (where N is an integer > 1) series of stories of systematic bias I have directly observed over the past year. These stories detail mechanisms in academia to systematically remove women and under-represented minorities from the academy. Women like Dr. Shirley Jackson (pictured here). Do you want to tell Shirley Jackson to get out? No? Well, awesome! Please read on.

Why to read on:

  • If these things have happened to you, know you are not alone. In sharing these stories, I hope people can learn that “it’s not you, it’s them,” and it isn’t fair. Recognizing when bias is happening to you is important to help you fight it for yourself and for others.
  • If you are an ally, learn about these tactics, so you can combat them. I know that these stories are hard to hear. Just think if you had to live them and put up with this every day. If you really want to help under-repressed people, you need to know when bias is happening and speak up when you can do something.

Today’s tale is about how women and minorities are removed at the professor level. I have seen this trick several times; I could literally write a manual for how to do it. It is especially saddening when they complain about the “leaky pipeline” and not having enough women and minorities in the supply line. Sometimes that just isn’t true! Sometimes there are perfectly good women in front of you, and you say no to them. Here are some of the tricks (part of the manual) that keep women and minorities out of the professoriate (I am going to use she, but you can read as any minority you want).

How to keep women and minorities from getting a job in your department:

  1.  During a one-on-one conversation with the minority candidate, ask a very confusing science question. Something like, “The sky is orange, right?” This is a “gotcha” question meant to put the candidate in a very difficult position. How does a minority candidate answer that question? Does she tell the white male, cis professor that he was mistaken? Does she try to convince him that he misspoke? Either way, it is a losing endeavor for her. When the minority candidate doesn’t “answer” this “question” the way expected, make sure to tell the hiring committee that she “Doesn’t know her own science, and couldn’t possibly be hired to the department.” See, in order to be a professor of X science, one needs to be proficient in X science. This is the most common way I have seen people remove women and minorities. It is super easy for other men to believe that a woman or minority doesn’t know whatever science, especially when it is physical science or engineering. I mean, they just don’t “look” like they would know what they are talking about. You might ask, does she have a PHD in X science? The answer is yes. She often also has had a postdoc in X and sometimes she is already a professor of X. Despite all these accreditations, the single, in person assessment of the candidate’s skills becomes more important than all the prior work. This will be a recurring motif (keep reading).
  2. When asking a question, expect an answer to a completely different question. When the minority candidate doesn’t answer the unarticulated question in your head, tell the committee she avoided the question and therefore must not know the answer.
  3. Ask a question in the seminar about the science being shown. Make sure your question appears to be somewhat silly and motivated by not listening to the candidate’s talk. Instead, consider your question is a “qualifier” question – literally the type of question from a qualifying exam. When the candidate doesn’t answer the question as expected, assume she does not know the answer to the qualifying exam question, and therefore “doesn’t know science X.” (See 1 above.)
  4. Ask a real question about science in the candidate’s seminar. Make sure that you once thought about this problem peripherally, but it isn’t your main line of work. Assess that the candidate, who is an expert on the science she is presenting, doesn’t describe the science the way you remember it, or think it should be described. You tell the committee that she couldn’t answer the question properly, and therefore doesn’t know enough about her own science, and shouldn’t be considered further. Or, go one step further, and ask the closest related expert in the audience for his, “expert opinion,” that way, everyone at the seminar will know that you don’t think much of the candidate or her answer.

Notice a theme? It all boils down to questioning the competence of the candidate, and the fact that many scientists rate this as the NUMBER 1 requirement to be a professor. Any misstep, any misspeak, any inability to decipher the question causes the faculty interviewing the candidate to say the minority candidate doesn’t know her stuff, and shouldn’t be hired. Even more frustrating is that the non-minority candidates often make the exact same mistakes, but the missteps are brushed off or glossed over and excused as the misspoken words they are. This is actually fine – I don’t begrudge that the non-minorities have common courtesy. What I mind is when that courtesy isn’t afforded to the minority candidates.

How can we change this? I think the first issue is that it is really hard to combat this type of thing on the fly. It would be much better if the hiring committee and department decided, in advance, how important knowledge of the field is? Is it enough to be able to teach undergraduates? What parts of the field are required to be known and at what level to be a professor? Further, what is the best way to assess this? Is is fair to ask the candidates all random questions and brush off difficulties of non-minority candidates while we focus and inflate those of minority candidates. If you want to ask a qualifier question, at least it should be asked of all candidates, it should be a clear question, and it should be judged equally. Personally, I think asking qualifier questions is dumb and will cause us to lose out on awesome candidates. Many excellent candidates would be offended by getting a PHD-level qualifier question. But at least it would be more fair than what is happening now. Either way, a conversation a priori about the importance and weight of this knowledge should occur.

More important to think about beforehand: is knowledge of all aspects of the field (assuming all candidates have a basic level of knowledge because they do have PHDs) the most important thing? I would argue that the ability to learn more science is a more important thing to assess, and it is the skill a professor actually needs. Further, based on my years and on many of these blog posts, knowledge of your field is not sufficient to be a good professor – let alone a great one. How can we assess the real skills a professor needs? Flexibility? Empathy? Change or growth mindset? Perseverance? Honestly, new faculty are going to get a lot of rejections – will he/she be able to bounce back? I would claim a minority candidate is much more likely to be able to take a hit and keep on going than someone who had very few struggles to make it this far.

Ironically, it is the diversity of thought, which many of these candidates show, that turns off my colleagues. Yet diversity of thought is exactly what we need in the department. Why do we need diversity of thought and people who think differently? Well, first there is the fact that we do science – a creative endeavor – and creative tasks are stymied when everyone thinks the same way. Second, and perhaps more importantly, we are teachers, and teachers need to be flexible and able to explain things in more than one way. To me, the diversity of thought displayed by minority candidates is EXACTLY what we need to be better educators… Sadly, many people don’t see things this way.

Well, there you go. A second story. I am looking for practical methods to combat this in action (in case the a priori decisions about weights don’t happen). Do you have any ideas? If you do have some ideas for how a department can get over themselves to allow some available, awesome minority candidates to actually get a fair shake, please comment here. Or, send me a post. I will happily post anything helpful for this problem. To get an email every time I post, please click the +Follow button.

Keep out! – part 1

keep-out-restricted-area-sign-s-2455Do you find yourself wondering why there aren’t more women, black, Latino, etc… students in science? I don’t wonder. I know why. They are constantly and systematically being removed from science at every level every day. I knew this. I have felt this, but this year it has hit me in the face over and over, and I am really just sick of it. Literally sick to my stomach.

Over the next few posts, I am going to outline some of the behaviors I have observed that keep women and minorities out of STEM fields. My first story just happened this week – yes, it is only Tuesday!

Like many other faculty, I have undergraduate and graduate students in my lab. I love them, as I have posted previously (here). One of the things that often happens is that the undergraduates have fun in the lab, and want to share their experiences with their friends. They invite their friends to the lab to see their experiments and meet their lab-mates. Often they meet me, and I get another undergraduate application (I have an application to work in my lab, detailed here). Many times they are also in science, and they appreciate the lab space and equipment we have.

This week, I was told that I can’t have other students hanging out in my lab. I have been at my institution for 11 years. I have never had an issue with students visiting and hanging out in the lab or nearby offices. I was wondering why all of the sudden I was getting crap for this. Then it hit me, I have a lot of students of color in my lab – black, Latino, African decent, etc… Many of these students also have friends who are black, Latino, African, etc… Now, all of the sudden, these extra students hanging around the lab have become very, very visible.

I guess I can’t say for sure if it is outright racism, but I can’t help but feel that they were “noticed” not just because they were black but because there is an assumption that they “didn’t belong there.” The excuse I was given was that they didn’t have safety training, and it would be a liability to have them in the lab. I asked if they could sit in the office space next to the lab, and was told it would disturb the other students.

Stupidly, I felt like I didn’t have a choice. At lab meeting that afternoon, we talked about it. I didn’t feel comfortable with it. I could tell my students were also bummed. As we discussed, I said, “if the problem is that they don’t have safety training, we should just have all our friends get safety training.” But, this solution didn’t sit well with me.

The next day, when the friends came by, my student asked them to leave. Of course, they wanted to know why. Luckily, I was there shortly to discuss. The visiting student came by my office, and we chatted. I knew this student was also a science student. It turns out he already had lab safety training because he had worked in labs before. We also talked about his background. Turns out he is a veteran, at university on the G.I. bill after serving his country for 6 years. I told him he was more than welcome in the lab, and if anyone had a problem, they could talk to me.

That evening, I was still upset. I was upset that I let someone tell me how to run my lab. I was upset that my students of color were being made to feel bad about having their friends around. I was mad that this happened because of systemic racism and the thought that people of color “shouldn’t be in a science lab.” I called my department head to ask what the “official policy” of the department was. He said, that probably we are not allowed to have untrained people in labs, but that he (not speaking as chair, but as a colleague) always allowed and encouraged students to bring their friends into the lab. I said that I felt the same way, but that my students were being unfairly singled out because they were black. I told him that I planned to allow these students to continue to be in the lab, and that if someone from the department reported them or me, that now he had a heads up about what was happening. He agreed but said he would stop by to make sure they were not being too disruptive to others. (This irked me, too, but I didn’t want to push my luck – I had already called his personal line in the evening to discuss this.) I promised him they were not loud or disruptive. In fact, the loudest person in the lab is often ME! (Anyone who knows me will not doubt this.) To the contrary, they are amazing and smart kids. They kinds of students anyone would want dating their own children – not to mention in the lab. Further, I know all of them personally and have had several mentoring conversations with each of them. I consider them my own students, and I don’t appreciate being told that they cannot be in the lab.

During this conversation with my department head, I remembered a story of when I was a graduate student. I was in a university that had an institute that held workshops with visitors from around the world. This was one of the benefits of being a graduate student at this school. There was a policy that graduate students could attend lectures but not meals unless they paid for the meeting. The graduate students argued that we wanted to be apart of meals because that was when a lot of networking and important scientific conversations happened. We promised to bring our own food, and the scientific leadership agreed. The information didn’t make it to the administrative assistants (all women) right away, so the first time we went in, they tried to stop the local graduate students. Well, to be clear – they only tried to stop ME. That was because I was the most conspicuous. All the local graduate student men mixed in and looked like all the visiting scholars and visiting students. Only I was conspicuously “wrong” and looked like I “didn’t belong there,” so I was told to leave while all my male colleagues went in… Of course I complained. I made it clear that I was singled out because I was a woman – a blonde woman – and “didn’t look right.” The science leadership allowed me to pass and made the new policy clear to the staff. I am sad to feel that almost 15 years later the same thing is still happening to students at my current institution. But, I won’t stop fighting. I might not always get it right at first, but I try. I hope my students don’t hold it against me that it took me a day to figure it out.

A lot of times my posts are meant to have some sort of follow-up with ideas for how to solve problems, but this post and the next few posts will be to open people’s eyes about the things that happen to under-represented groups in STEM and why they might not exactly want to stay to work in these environments.

Award Season!

Yellow Ribbon Award isolated on white backgroundDear All,

Just a reminder that it is awards season – time to be nominating your woman and under-representented minority friends, colleagues, peers for awards, fellowship, etc. Please see this recent OpEd in the APS News: Back Page to see some numbers on the problem with the supplement on another blog in case you think that a bunch of women can’t possibly have done the statistics correctly. Please read before you ask. Seriously.

Please do:

  • nominate deserving women and minorities. Do you realize the crap we go through just to get here. We are super qualified. Nominate us.
  • ask people to nominate you and help them put together your nomination.

Please don’t:

  • pre-judge yourself and decide not to do it based on your self-doubt. Let them tell you know, and it is an honor to be nominated at all (link). There is no perfect time when you are “ready” and if the committee things you are not ready, then fine – let them decide for themselves. Yes, they are likely to have biases, but a lot of times they are looking for qualified women to award things to, and there are zero women in the pool. Further, having multiple women in a pool is important for getting any other woman to win (see this cool article). So, consider that your nomination might help yourself, and it might help someone else!!
  • only nominate women and minorities for women and minority awards! This is infuriating. I have been told from my department that I shouldn’t try for a general award, but should wait and only apply for women-only awards. I do think these awards are important (link), but I certainly don’t think it helps to only allow women or minorities to those awards! Duh.
  • pre-judge people who ask to be nominated. If you are an ally who is looking to help women, please don’t discourage. I know it is tempting to think, “why should they get an award, and not me?” or even, “well, they aren’t *that* good,” but don’t. Even if you genuinely think someone asking or someone you are considering is “not ready,” remember it is an honor to be nominated. It will make your friend, colleague, department, field of study, etc look good – just to be nominated (link). One of the biggest issues is that women are not nominated, so obviously cannot win awards, fellowships, etc. Please turn down your criticism knob. Please turn up your optimism knob. And help!

OK, so I hope you get out there, put in some hard work, and help your fellow scientist or engineer to get nominated for any and all awards.

Rolemodeling Femininity

Sequins_macroToday I have a cool post from another WomanOfScience. It is once again on clothing choice, which is difficult to decide for many women, and is becoming more confusing for young men, as well. I have had a number of prior posts about clothes (here, here, herehere, here, here – OMG, that is so many!), but I really love this one!  Thank you for your post!

Our department’s Women’s group has been having a discussion today about femininity in STEM professions. Many women feel they need to masculinize themselves in order to be taken seriously. This seems like a great forum to continue this discussion and hear the perspectives of other brilliant and successful women scientists.
My view is that this presents a three-fold problem in attempts to achieve equality in STEM professions. On one hand, it sends a message to young women that they have to check their femininity at the door — they shouldn’t wear dresses or makeup. This discourages young girls from wanting to be part of this field because a significant part of their identity is manifestly not valued at best and unwanted, or deemed inappropriate, at the worst.
Worse than sending the message to the next generation that they are unwanted is that current students, postdocs and faculty may feel that they have to deny part of themselves for the sake of their careers. That can wreak havoc on the mental state of women and deeply impacts their career satisfaction. Feeling that they are not accepted and have not community, no support system, is one of the leading reasons women leave STEM careers.
At the highest levels, making people feel like outsiders for not being white or male or western reinforces a dangerous stereotype that there is only one “correct” point of view in science. That leaves no room for creativity or thinking outside the box. How many of your biggest breakthroughs have come from tiny iterations on a single project? None of mine have. They all require creativity, ingenuity, hard work and moreover taking many other perspectives into account. When we dictate the singular validity of an established point of view, we negate the insights and perspectives to be had from listening to women and minorities. A broad diversity of backgrounds leads to better critical thinking. Yet, the insular culture of the status quo suppresses the very essence of what makes for good science.
Having role models who feel the need to cloister their femininity, nullify their gender, or conform to other people’s ideals does not bode well for the future of women in STEM.
As some of you know, I am unabashedly, unashamedly feminine. I wear dresses, stilettos, makeup and perfume. I do it because it is who I am and that makes me feel good about myself. I get a secret kick out of being a science version of that famous quote about Ginger Rogers “sure he [Fred Astaire] was great, but don’t forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did…backwards and in high heels”.
I know that sometimes people don’t take me seriously. That is sad, but ultimately their loss because they won’t be able to appreciate good work that has been done by someone with a different background. The flip side is that me being me is something that resonates with my female students, particularly in my intro physics for engineers course. They get to see someone who isn’t much older than them and looks like them confidently doing physics and calculus in front of them, and they realize that despite what they’ve been told in high school, perhaps they too can succeed and do well. Female students have come to me in my office hours saying that they had expected they couldn’t do better than a middle B, but we’re thrilled that they had earned an A. The best part is I get to see the confidence they have in themselves growing over the semester.
I am by no means advocating that everyone be ultra feminine. What I am advocating is to inject a bit of your personality into your work uniform — wear a bright color, that funky pair of shoes you only wear on special occasions, some cool science earrings, or any article of clothing or jewelry that you love. The confidence that comes from being happier and more yourself sets a great example for your students and colleagues.
Thanks for that insightful post! I wholeheartedly agree. One idea is that we can stick to discussions of “professional” attire. I think we can all agree that it would be inappropriate to wear a bikini to give a talk at a conference! So, there must be a line somewhere, and that line is different depending on what you are doing that day, who you are talking to, and the venue.
What do you think? Have a good idea for a post or want to make a comment, do it here! Push the +Follow button to get an email overtime I post.

Body Language: Act Big

BodyLanguageAt the recent big physics conference this year, there was a really great pre-conference tutorial on how to give good talks. I have had a couple posts about giving good talks (here, here). One thing that was stressed at the tutorial was body language. One of the presenters (really, I should say workshop-runners) was an actor who thinks a lot about body language. Her advice included things such as keeping your feet firmly planted about shoulder width apart, opening up your shoulders (not hunched), and holding your head up. Also, you should use your hands effectively to help elaborate points, but do not put them behind your back or crossed over your chest.

This is all excellent advice! I definitely do all this stuff when I give a talk or in class. But, this is good advice for all the time – not just when giving a talk. In fact, I walk with such confidence and purpose, that I have been stopped on campus more than once by someone who commented “You look like you are going to kick someone’s ass.” And that is exactly how I want to look. In fact, I am there to kick ass, everyday. Walking and holding myself confidently actually helps give me the confidence to do my job. I started doing this as part of my mantra of “fake it until you make it.” I practiced, and I don’t have to fake it anymore. I especially like walking briskly down the hall with my tall boots under a flowy skirt and making a lot of click-clack noise. People know I am there. I walk with purpose. I feel and look large and in charge.

If you are a woman or under-represented minority, thinking about and using your body language and appearance effectively are essential to your success. I have written about this previously here in the context of the classroom. Your body language can communicate to the class how competent (confident) you are, how serious to take you, and that you care about the students and their learning. When paired with your words, body language can be powerful to help you make your points and connect with them.

When your body language is at odds with your words, people feel uncomfortable. Because people’s perception of body language is subconscious, they may not understand where their discomfort comes from. That discomfort and uncertainty mix to make them even more uncomfortable and distrustful. This is a bad combination, especially because women have a harder time engendering trust, in general due to sexism (see article).

Outside of classes, I also use the same tactics. At the conference, I stood with my feet apart. I noticed other women of approximately my stage and success level were also standing feet apart, heads up, shoulders back, and arms either animated or crossed. I find that, as a woman, crossing your arms doesn’t look closed off if you stand with your head up and expression open. Instead, crossed arms gives you an air of competence and healthy skepticism – a good stance for a scientist. It was cool to notice that we were all standing in basically the same stance. Most importantly, you do not want to shrink back. You want to take up space. If you are thin or short, this is even more important.

In faculty meetings or other committee meetings, I often purposely take up a bit more space than is strictly necessary. I cross my legs with my ankle on my knee. I put my arm on the neighboring chair. I make myself larger because I am often physically smaller than my colleagues (although I am by no means a “small girl”). Whatever I do, I do not shrink in or try to take up less space than I need. Taking up more space sends a sub-conscious notice that I deserve the space, and I deserve to be heard.

Why is body language effective? Most body language and facial expressions are important forms of non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication allows you to communicate silently and subconsciously about yourself. Because it is subconscious, you can use it to communicate your assertiveness without actually acting overtly aggressive.  Talking over men, interrupting, or speaking loudly can get you labeled as pushy, bossy, and aggressive. Using body language to communicate your place at the table is physically assertive, but it is not perceived consciously.

So, what do you think? Comment or send your own article to post. As always, push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.


1600px-Solvay_conference_1927I am a woman in a male-dominated field. In my department, being cis-white male is being apart of a 67% majority when you include all lecturers. If you reduce your scope to tenure-track faculty (the upper class), cis-white male is 74% of that group. So, although I am a white woman and in the privileged class in the country. My intersectionality comes through fighting every day for women and under-represented groups’ equality within my field and department.

I was recently talking to my unicorn friend (she is a black woman in my cis-white male field), and she said something extremely important that I hadn’t thought of before: When you are a minority in a field, it is hard to tell if the problems you face are normal or due to your minority status. Because it is difficult to tell, and because it can be embarrassing or difficult to ask majority-members about your problems, it is easy to conclude that your troubles all spurn from being a minority. If you chalk every problem you have up to being a woman, you quickly become labeled as a whiney minority who wants special treatment. This is a common complaint which is spurned from both your unicorn status – the fact that there is legit racism and sexism against you – and your not knowing what is “normal” for majority-people.

Another issue that minorities face is that we can become isolated. Once you are labeled a whiney minority, it can be difficult to make friends and get to know people. That can be isolating. Isolation results in marginalization. Marginalization results in more whining, and it is a vicious cycle. I have noticed that this often happens to senior women in cis-white male dominated fields, and they are written off as “crazy” (see this blog post). Further, despite the marginalized person being about as productive, funded, etc as other majority-persons in the department, their contributions don’t seem to count as much and they cannot maintain respect from their colleagues. I have noticed that the senior women who are marginalized are not asked to lead important committees in the department. Younger women are not yet qualified and that keeps the leadership within the majority group’s leadership.

When a junior woman/minority breaks through the glass ceiling, typically by being an absolute superstar who must win more awards and have more papers and grants than others, they get singled out as the unicorn who is acceptable to the majority. The majority wants diversity, so they will then overburden that “acceptable minority” with more work, service, and leadership. Simultaneously, the “regular” egalitarian-shared work load is not removed – because it wouldn’t be fair for you to do less – what you think you are so special you don’t have to pull your weight in the department? If you complain about the service load, you are risking being a whiney minority.

So, women/minority superstars end up doing a lot more work and it goes unnoticed. Further, the minority superstar must keep up their superstar research status, as they are constantly at risk of slipping into whiney minority-marginalized status if there is a dip in paper production or funding. Yet, majority-member colleagues with a dip in funding or paper output are still allowed to serve as leaders, and they are allowed to ask to be taken out of service roles that are overly burdensome without consequence. Thus, women/minorities must do more to earn the respect of their colleagues and they must do more to maintain the respect of their majority counterparts.

An additional burden of being a minority-status person in a department is the constant fight just to maintain normalcy. I have written about this previously here. Because, frankly, shit does happen and it does happen more to minority-status people. Add on top of that the fact that we can’t always tell if stuff is real or we are being too sensitive, but erring on the side of doing nothing can have serious negative impacts.

Now, these are not the only issues under-represented groups face, but these are the ones I that are often hidden or difficult to understand by majority-persons. Ultimately it comes down to cultivating the opinions of others about you. It is a PR issue. I spend a lot of energy on these PR issues. Brainpower I could be using to be smarter in my science. But, it is worth it to me to stay in the non-marginalized demographic.

The spirit of this blog is not just to explain and complain, but to come up with solutions that all parties can take back to change the situation.

Hire more minorities. OK, this is perhaps obvious. If you just hire more minority faculty, it is harder for them to be singled out in a variety of ways. They don’t feel as isolated and walking on a knife-edge. They can ask each other for advice. The majority people are also more comfortable with minority-status peers when there are more of them. Because we are not all the same (shocker!). If there is only one woman, you might be confused about how she responds to things and why she is getting upset. (I am assuming you are a nice person who wants your minority-status peer to succeed.) If there are 8 women, probably one of them can help you understand what’s going on.

Make friends. Many minority faculty feel isolated because they don’t make friends at work. Not having friends at work sucks. Even if you are a total introvert and are rejuvenated by being alone, I still advocate making friends. If you are a majority-status person, make friends with minority-status people. If you are a minority, make friends with your majority-status colleagues. It is vitally important that you have a diversity of friends (we all value diversity, right?).

You also need to have friends who have the same or similar minority-status as you, because there might be things you can’t talk about with majority people. We all need to have people we can whine and bitch to. You also need friends who are majority-status. Why? Because you need people you trust who can tell you if what you are seeing and feeling is racism/sexism or just regular old periodic suckiness of this job? You need to know how a cis-white male would deal with the same situations you are dealing with.

How do you make friends? Ask people to go to lunch. Invite them to your house for dinner. Invited them out for drinks after work. Assemble a group to see a campy movie. I know it feels weird to make friends as an adult, but you need to do it. Also, people are busy, just as you are busy as a faculty member. If you don’t get a response or get a no, you have to try again. Spending time with friends outside of work helps you realize your shared values as scientists, researchers, teachers, and even parents or members of the town. Having shared values builds trust. Trust is essential for sharing difficult or embarrassing situations where you might need help.

Have mentors. Some departments have assigned mentors and you might hit it off – that is great. Much like you should not have one set of friends, you should also not have one set of mentors. You also need to make sure your mentors are many different types of people (diversity!). You need to trust them, and that might mean being friends with them (see above). The principles of cultivating mentors is similar to friendships. The main difference is that you should come with questions and ask for help sometimes.

Ask for help. I have said this before when talking about sexist evaluations, but you will have to swallow your pride and ask for help about embarrassing situations. As I said, if you are too embarrassed to do what you have to do in order to be successful at this job, you are at risk of losing this job. You are also at risk of becoming marginalized.

Let me give you an example from a recent experience of my own. My first few students weren’t working out in the lab. The first, I fired because he wasn’t working or showing up, and I couldn’t really tolerate such work ethic in a lab at such an early stage. The second student quit because the work was much harder than anticipated. This was followed by another and another. Luckily, I recruited a good postdoc and a student from a different graduate program who could handle the work. I could have just kept quiet and hoped that my colleagues didn’t notice the number of students running through my lab. Instead, I went to my mentors to tell them what was happening and get advice on what to do. I also asked if my having no graduate students from my home department would hurt me at tenure time. By asking for help and being frank and honest, I was letting my mentors (and colleagues) know that I know my situation was not ideal, but that there were good reasons for what was happening. I also told them my solution and tried to gauge how much it would matter for my career.

Also, this is not just for women or minorities. Men who have bad teaching evaluations, overloaded service, difficulties managing your students, or other issues should also speak up and talk to your mentors. I know it is scary, but not getting tenure is scarier to me.

Identify bullish*t. When you are a woman or minority in a majority white-male-cis world,  you will get treated differently because of your status. It will happen, so how do you identify it, so that you are not complaining about something that is normal? If you are a majority-member wanting to be an ally, how can you tell if the situation you are being told about is sexism/racism? Well, you can always try to picture a majority-status person in the same situation and try to decide if it seems “weird.”

For instance, when a woman tells you that she was told she cannot go to full early because, “Why should she go before her male colleagues?” that might not seem weird because she may in fact be the only woman at the associate professor level. But, if you change that scenario, and think of the personnel committee chair asking a male associate professor, “Why should you go up for full before your female colleagues?” you realize that it is weird.

What do you think? Have you ever had a situation where you thought, “Does this happen to everyone? Or is this because I am a woman/minority?” I have. It is hard to determine if things that happen are because of your status or because it is normal, everyday assholery of academia. Are there other ways to figure this out? If you have other ideas, please share! To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.



Introvert vs. Extrovert Divide

Leonardo_da_Vinci_043-modDiversity. It is something we all say we want, and struggle to figure out how to get it in the white and male hallowed halls of academia. But, there is one way in which academia is actually pretty diverse, and that is in the mixture of introverts and extroverts. I have discussed before that I have had people take the Myers-Briggs test as a way to understand their own selves better. For those who haven’t read that post, the point is not to evaluate or judge anyone, but to have people realize that there is a diversity of personalities and styles in the research group. If you read the post, you will see there are interesting and helpful activities associated with the test – it isn’t meant as a label.

Understanding my students better, including their personalities, especially if they are an introvert or extrovert, helps me to mentor and reach them. It also helps me to explain to them how I function. When talking to my students – especially new students – I often tell them that I am an extreme extrovert. This means that I will think out loud, I will say things that I am still testing and might not mean, and I will throw out unformulated and untested ideas. If they are less extroverted or introverted, this is likely not how they operate.

Introverts, at least in my lab, are often very careful about what they say. They do not throw out half-baked ideas or plans. They think internally and very carefully before they speak. This is very admirable, but it is not how I operate. I tell them all this. I also tell them that I will try very hard to give them time to think and speak. I will try not to speak over them. But, that sometimes I will, on accident, and to please excuse me. This conversation has worked pretty well, and I sometimes repeat it, if the person works for me long enough and we both need a reminder. Most introverts are happy to have it explained and to see that I am trying to understand how they best operate.

I think one reason for the high incidence of introverts in academia is that it is seen as not only acceptable, but normal to be a focused, introverted academic. You know the old joke:

“How can you tell if an {Insert STEM label here, i.e. engineer} is an extrovert? They look at your shoes when they talk.”

Indeed, the stereotype of the introverted academic is not exclusive to science, engineering, or math. Some of my friends are introverted sociologists and economics professors.

But, my question for you, dear readers, is this: Is it harmful or helpful to you to be an introverted scientist? Are introverts excluded from the highest levels of academic achievement? I wonder this, because I feel it is true in other areas of achievement, outside of academia. Indeed, we live in a world of extrovert achievement. Just take a look at our current presidential race. No matter what you think of the candidates, it is obvious that one is an extrovert and one is an introvert, and there is an inherent distrust of the introvert (of course, it could just be old-fashioned misogyny, too?). Is there a level or a time where being an introvert can actually hurt your career because you are not pushy, not loud, and therefore not heard?

There is also the flip-side: Introverts who speak infrequently, can carry an extra gravitas when they do speak. As if their words are more important, better formulated, and more powerful because they come so rarely. So, I ask the opposite: Is it harmful or helpful to you to be an extroverted scientist? Are extroverts excluded from the highest levels of academic leadership or power?

Each label, extrovert and introvert, comes with positive and negative stereotypes, like almost anything else. So, how does one influence people to spin the positive stereotype over the negative one? Does it matter if you are a woman or minority? What if a white male is quiet most of the time (an introvert)? Now picture a black woman acting the same way? Are your perceptions of that person’s power or gravitas altered by how you imagine them? I don’t think I have any answers or advice on this. Just something I have been pondering.

Whatever you or your colleagues or students are – introvert or extrovert – I think my most important advice is to communicate to them your style so they know what to expect and how to interpret your words. What do you think? Post or comment here. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

Tag Cloud