Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

How to Deal

Nagasakibomb-colorOMG. My worst nightmare is a reality. Our next President is a confirmed woman assaulting, hate mongering, xenophobic, narcissist. Or at least he plays one on TV.

In the spirit of this blog, we all know what happened, and we know it sucks, but the question is: how do we deal with it? I have to say that I have become quite an expert at having difficult conversations with my students – and not just the shit sandwich kind. Here is what I did today (perhaps others can share what they did in the comments).

  1. If you are teaching, there are already a couple of resources online. One from the University of Michigan and a good article What Should We Tell The Children? You should decide for yourself if you want to bring it up or not. You should probably have a plan of what to say if a student brings it up. If you are a woman or person of color, students will likely come to you to talk, if they feel badly.
  2. If you have students who are at risk or feeling vulnerable, here is what I did.
    • We had a casual group conversation in the hallway with students who were supportive and positive about supporting these students. Much of it was the commiseration, but some of it was expressions of fears of people saying or doing something and stories of having people yell, “Go back from where you came!” at students in various places. As most college towns, the students feel, and probably are, safer here than in other rural places in the US, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t the target of bigoted, xenophobic slurs.
    • I already had a meeting with my middle eastern student, a wonderful scientist who works in a hijab. We discussed her abstract to be submitted Friday to a national conference. After the editing was done, I turned to her and asked if she was OK and if I could do anything to help her feel better. I told her that I wanted to have a diverse lab, and that she should always feel safe in the lab. That was the most important. If she ever didn’t feel safe, or was scared from people who might yell or harm her, that she should call or text me. And if something did happen, she should report it to me immediately. She was very grateful for my offer and appeared visibly relieved.
  3. Because I didn’t get to talk to everyone, and one student sent out an announcement about an on campus vigil that she was attending, I decided to officially condone the activity (despite missing it because I needed to get home to my kids). I also used the opportunity to send a message to my students. Here is what I wrote:
Dear Labbies,
I encourage anyone who needs help or support to consider going to the vigil tonight.
I am happy to talk with anyone personally about my views on these subjects, but I won’t put them in this email.
Also, I would like to say that it is important to me that my lab be inclusive and diverse. I strive to make it that way purposely. You should feel safe within the lab. Feeling safe is not the same thing as feeling comfortable. Being in a diverse environment can be uncomfortable, and being uncomfortable can be an important place for learning and growing. Part of being in college is being pushed to think about and discuss uncomfortable things in a controlled, respectful, and civilized manner using FACTS and not just opinions. I encourage conversations about our differences in experience in a calm, respectful manner. You may use humor, but not as a weapon.
Further, I want you to know that if you do not feel safe because of your faith, skin tone, or heritage, please come to talk to me immediately. You may call or text me (XXX-XXX-XXXX) if you are concerned for yourself outside the lab and you need help immediately, please call.
Finally, please watch out for each other. Many of you already text and chat to each other. Please do exchange numbers and call or text if you are in an unsafe or hostile situation and need help. I do not expect that to occur in SmallUniversityTown, but it can happen, as I am most worried that a Trump administration has emboldened hate groups with racist, misogynist, and violent intentions in our country. We can help each other. The best way to defeat a bully is by having friends nearby to help.
Please be safe and help each other,
WomanOfScience

Honestly, having all these conversations was as really good for me. It felt good to be in action and to feel like I could help in this terrible situation. But, my students helped me, as well. My middle eastern student told me about a time in her country’s history when they elected someone very similar to Trump and then had to live through it. For 8 years of his rule, student activists were jailed, killed, or forced to leave their country forever. If they could live through that, we would make it through Trump.

I told her I hoped that the Founding Fathers’ system of checks and balances and our active civil rights organizations hold better than that.Then she gave me some excellent advise: Don’t spend too much energy on this. Save your energy because it will be many years to fight. She told me that I am needed here to give energy to our work, including science and educating and helping my students. This is what she learned from watching others who lost their freedom, their lives, their families, and/or their countries during those 8 years (he was re-elected, and his second term was far worse than his first, apparently).

So, what do you think? Do you have a story to share? What did you say to your students today? Do you have better words of wisdom? Please share in a comment. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Wrong Kind of Attention

conferenceThe election is bringing out a lot of issues about sexual harassment, assault, and unwanted sexual advances. There has also been a lot of news about sexual harassment in science over the past couple years with the outing of three male scientists who appear to be serial harassers. There have been many, many excellent articles about exactly the kind of harassment women encounter and how is negatively affects the women and makes many women leave science. I am making a little list of some of my favorite and important articles here:

This one written by a cool WomanOfScience blogger, Hope Jahren: “She Wanted to do Her Science…”

This one on TenureSheWrote from a woman who is standing up for the next generation and the follow-up on collaborations with harassers.

A story on NPR: science’s dark secret

And in Nature: astronomy roiled

Last year, one of the big conferences I attend annually,  decided to make a new anti-harassment policy. Because I think this is a very important step in protecting women, I am going to link to the policy at the Biophysical Society. My conference roomie and I were talking about how this is a really good step for the society. Because the society has a lot of young women, it is important to protect them. This policy gives them the ability to stand up for themselves.

At the first session of the first day of the conference, a senior male in my field asked me about the policy. He said that he was worried that men wouldn’t be able to flirt with women anymore without getting in trouble. I joked, but said that I think, if the woman is receptive to the flirting, you are safe. I did say that I, for one, was happy for this change. I briefly relayed a terrible conversation I had the previous year at the meeting where a program officer was very rude and threatening to me at a reception (I haven’t blogged about this, but will if people are interested). It was not explicitly sexual, but it was harassment, and he was using his power over me (as a program officer at a federal agency) to try to intimidate me. I didn’t report it to the society, but I did report it to the funding agency. The guy was actually reprimanded, but not for all that long.

Thinking back on it now, I am troubled by this conversation at the conference with the senior guy. I assume my male colleague was asking about flirting for other men, and not himself, as he is much older and happily married. But, even if he were asking for some other man, what right is there to flirting? Don’t get me wrong, I love flirting. I flirt with men and women in a professional manner asking them about their science and teasing about recent publications and students. But, is there a right to sexual flirting? At a conference? I don’t flirt that way, and I don’t expect to be flirted with that way. I don’t think there is a reasonable right to sexual flirting at a scientific conference.

There is another side effect. When older men flirt with young women, even if it is harmless-seeming, and the woman doesn’t mind, you are putting the woman in an uncomfortable position, nonetheless. Let me explain. When I was in graduate school, one of my peers said that women had it easier in male-dominated fields. I was surprised that he said that, and asked him to explain. He said that when you are a woman, you get all sorts of attention from senior guys. He said he never gets as much attention as cute girls get. So, when a senior guy flirts with a young woman, you are putting her in the position to raise the ire of her male colleagues who grumble that the woman is only getting the attention because she is attractive. This is also detrimental to the woman, who is there to talk about science and isn’t trying to get *that* kind of attention. We want attention for our science – not our looks. Further, for women who don’t want attention for their looks, it can drive them to dress more man-ish – perhaps in a way they don’t want to. So, now the woman has to look like a man in order to stave off unwanted attention, and that isn’t fair either.

What do you think? Do you think conferences should have sexual harassment policies? Do you think they help or hurt? Comment or send me a post. To get an email each time I post, push the +Follow button.

What the Hell?

I need a laugh. Don’t you? I am super stressed about the election. I am working on my third of five federal proposals due this fall. Why are all the deadlines in Fall semester? Today, we had an awesome woman seminar speaker for one of the interdisciplinary programs I am in. I met with her, and we discussed politics and science. I probably should have worked harder to impress her, but she was too cool, and I was just happy to talk.

I had my normal back-to-back meetings, but I did get to go into the lab this afternoon and work with my students. It was fun, even if nothing works when I go in to work with them (somehow it works when either they or I am doing it, but not together – no idea why).

After that, I went to the late afternoon seminar. I set my stuff down and went into the women’s room. There was a few privacy switchbacks and then three stalls. I opened the first one and saw this:

2016-10-18-15-55-27

I wasn’t exactly surprised to see this. My building and several others that were built at the same time all have these in the women’s rooms (same wall tiles, stalls, and floor tiles, too). I made an out-loud comment, “Ugh, stupid weird potty,” or something like that.

I didn’t realize that there was anyone in the far stall. It was the speaker, and she had heard my muffled complaint. She commented, “I noticed that, but what is it? I have never seen anything like that in all my life.”

And honestly folks, I have no Earthly idea what this is. Here are our best guesses and the rationale for each.

  1. It is a men’s urinal. But, if so, why is it sideways and filled with water? Why not a urinal on the wall? Let’s assume there was a time when the women’s room was a men’s room. That makes sense in some buildings – the graduate tower, for instance that only has one bathroom on each floor. If, when built in the 1960’s people did not expect ANY women (not even secretaries?) to use the bathrooms, then all the floors would only have men’s rooms. In the tower, the bathrooms alternate if they are for men or women, but I think they have the same type of toilets in the stalls. Here is another weird thing about this. In my building and the building where I took this picture, on the other side of the wall is a men’s room. I can only assume it is a mirror image of the women’s room. So, does that mean it was a double-sized men’s room they split in half? If so, why were the stalls back-to-back? How could they have been adjoined? I find this very weird.
  2. It is a women’s urinal. Is it possible that this is a urinal for women? If so, how are you supposed to use it? Are you supposed to face it? Sit on it like a regular toilet? In all honesty, I have used it. I literally just sit on it. It really just needs a 3D printed seat to sit on top, and it would be perfectly fine. Since no one uses it, this urinal/toilet is very clean in the women’s room.

Other questions come to mind, like:

  • Why have them at all? Even if all the bathrooms were for men originally, why have urinals? Why not have stalls only?
  • Which company made these? When and where? Are there instructions?
  • Finally, in a business setting, why do we even have men’s and women’s rooms? I know everyone says men’s rooms are gross, but seriously, if all the toilets are in stalls – even the urinals – what is the difference? I know I might be in the minority about this, but it would make things easier for our transgender students, if they didn’t have to choose – and give women more stalls.

The point of this post was to entertain and talk about something that wasn’t the election. I hope it made you smile. Comment or post, if you feel like. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

Guest Post: Raise Your Voices

GuestPostThis post comes from an awesome WomanOfScience friend of mine. I hope you enjoy!

This post is about one of my first real experiences with gender bias, as a new PI in {life} science.

During my first year of being a new PI, I was invited to participate in a small workshop in my field.  There were only about 80 of us, with most of us being PIs.  It was an intense 4 day meeting alternating between talks and long, open-ended discussions about important issues in our research area.  In many ways, it was fantastic.

However, I quickly noticed something that I found to be a bit concerning.  While the organizers commended themselves for ensuring that almost half of the participants were women, I noticed that women almost never spoke during the extensive questions-and-answers sessions after each talk, nor did they ever participate in the lengthy “open” discussion periods.  As a new PI in my field, still trying to get the lay of the land, I was hyper-aware of what my female role models were doing.  And I was a bit dismayed that even the full professors who were women were not speaking up.

At first, I wondered, “Am I right about this?  Am I just not noticing when women speak?  Is my own unconscious bias coming through by dismissing their contributions?  Or, are women really not speaking?”  So, during the second day, I began to keep count.  I made a tally every time someone spoke up, whether it was a male or female.

By the end of that second day, it was clear.  Less than 10% of the questions or comments were from women, despite the fact that over 40% of the attendees were women.  And several of the few questions from women were from me, the most junior female PI in the room.  (I have always been pushed to ask questions of speakers, by my graduate and post-doctoral mentors, so I try to speak up as much as possible.)

But I was disturbed that women were not being equally represented in the discussions.  One thing that I noticed was that, oftentimes, the men in the room seemed completely unfazed to spout some random off-the-wall idea that potentially made no sense at all, just to get conversation started.  They weren’t concerned that their idea might sound idiotic.  They weren’t concerned that their words might mean that they were incompetent.

In my (limited) experience, WOMEN DO NOT DO THIS.  Women are careful to only state ideas that they perceive to be “important”.  And since women appear to be uncertain whether their ideas actually are important, they rarely speak up at all.  Why is this?

One answer comes from a really interesting article that I read just before I went to this conference.It discussed how transgendered people who have transitioned can provide interesting insights into how men and women are perceived differently.  My favorite quote in the article comes from Joan Roughgarden, a biologist at Stanford who used to be male until late in her career.  She says “men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise.”

Unfortunately, I have found this to be the case.  I will admit, I was not nearly as aware of this bias when I was a graduate student at a top tier research university.  In my class of around 30 students, 75% of us were women.  I was not even aware of gender bias when I was a postdoc.  Of course, I had heard of and read about unconscious bias.  But I had not seemed to experience it myself or noticed any impact on my own career.  It was only once I became a PI that I began to notice gender bias in my workplace in any real way.

I have long heard that one way to combat gender bias is to make sure that more people are aware of it, when it occurs, so we can at least pay attention to our unconscious bias and figure out ways to deal with it.  Thus, at the bar at the conference that second evening, after I had discovered that only 10% of the questions were from women, I decided to bring it up among a small circle of friendly colleagues.  It seemed natural to do so.  It was a group of just a few of us, people in my sub-field who have known each other for years, a mix of 1 man and 3 women.  Someone else had brought up the fact that women and men were almost equally represented at the meeting, and “Wasn’t that so great?”  So I then replied, “Yeah, it’s great that the organizers did such a wonderful job.  But you know what’s a little funny?  Women are only asking about 10% of the questions, and they aren’t participating at all in the open discussions.”  The women in my group made no reply.  But the man said, “Are you sure?  That can’t be right.”  And I answered, “No, I am right.  I actually counted today.”  The guy was silent for a moment, looked at me right in the eyes, and said, “Well, then I think that you should spend more time thinking about science and less time counting how many questions are being asked by women.”

I was dumbstruck.  I had asked more questions in that group than any other woman in the room, and his response is that I should be asking even more?  And that it wasn’t possible for me to think about science and tally male/female counts at the same time?  And that he didn’t see that it was an issue that women weren’t speaking up?  And that he didn’t respect the fact that I might see it as an issue, as a new woman to the field?  Two years later, this guy is still a close friend and colleague, a true supporter of me and my career.  But he appears to be clearly unaware of gender bias in the scientific world, and how its insidious nature can undermine the confidence of women scientists.

My own response to my observation has been to continue to do what I can – to speak up when I can – to try to be a role model for other, younger women scientists to speak up and not be afraid.  My students are REQUIRED to ask questions at seminars and meetings.  And I teach them to not be concerned about sounding stupid.  That I prefer them to be perceived as engaged and perhaps naive, rather than silent.  Because if you are silent, you aren’t bringing anything at all to the table.

So, my call to other women scientists is to speak up.  Speak your mind.  Even when you are unsure of your ideas.  Share your questions with others.  Isn’t that what science is about?  Asking questions that we don’t know the answers to?

More recently, now that I’ve been a PI for longer, I’ve become even more comfortable asking questions and speaking up.  At the last meeting that I went to (about 300 attendees), I was again the most visible woman.  I probably asked 2-3 questions each day of the 3 day meeting.  I thought that most of my questions were pretty stupid.  But I asked them anyway, especially when no one else seemed to be interested in doing so.  At the end of the meeting, a huge leader in my field came up to me and told me that he had to meet me and share with me that he was so impressed with my “wonderful questions” and that I had been “more impressive than any junior female PI he has ever seen at a conference before in his 30+ years” of being a PI.

While I was glad that he noticed me and complimented my participation, and I am hopeful that my visibility might be a good model for the many, many young women in the audience that asked no questions at all, I do still find it a rather sad state of affairs that this guy had never seen a junior woman ask multiple questions at conferences before (or, at least, not recall seeing it).  I will note that he (and everyone else that I spoke with) was also incredibly impressed by my grad student who accompanied me, as she asked several questions, as well.  She was the only female graduate student to ask any questions during this meeting.

And while I’m hopeful that other women saw our examples, I also am concerned that most women are still too insecure and uncertain to ask questions themselves.  Or, they simply do not realize just how valuable it can be to be visible.  But one thing I’ve learned is that succeeding in academia (and life, really) requires me to confront my fears head on – to run into them.  I used to be terrified – terrified – of public speaking.  My fight or flight response was on full blast when I asked questions, when I spoke in front of people.  But I forced myself to do it anyway.  When I commended my student after she asked questions by telling her how brave she was, she replied that she was not brave, that rather, she “was terrified.”  I explained that being brave does not mean that you are not afraid.  Being brave means you do something EVEN THOUGH you are afraid.

So, I now make it one of my main goals to talk about my own insecurities, my own fears, and the importance of speaking up and being visible, whenever I have the opportunity to speak with students and postdocs. I am hopeful that the more times women hear it, the more likely there will be change.  And that someday, when I go to a meeting, there will be just as many women asking questions as men.

Thanks so much for this awesome post! What do you think? Comment or write your own post! To get an email each time I post, push the +Follow button.

Bias, Bringing it Up (Nicely?)

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

civil_rights_march_on_washington_d-c-_dr-_martin_luther_king_jr-_and_mathew_ahmann_in_a_crowd-_-_nara_-_542015_-_restorationI absolutely agree with this. I have discussed in previous posts how important it is to speak up and speak out (here, here, here) that I think it is important to point out “bad” behavior. There is sometimes evil behavior, such as the string of sexual harassment issues plaguing astronomy lately, but most sexist or racist behavior is subtle and bad, but not outright evil. I advocate for the approach to pointing out the behavior be commensurate with the level of badness of the behavior. For instance, ass grabbing should be immediately shouted about and pointed out strongly. Unconscious bias by a generally nice person who doesn’t really realize doesn’t need to be screamed about – but discussed in a civilized manner. Sometimes that doesn’t work.

In this post, I am going to tell two stories of times I had to point this out. Judge for yourself how it went. Always open to comments and questions.

Story 1: Game Over. Earlier this year, I served again on a panel. I had discussed this panel in a previous post on the blog. If you read this prior story, you might get an idea that I was already a strike down with this panel. This year, the panel was virtual. I have also posted about how I dislike virtual panels (networking panels) – strike two. This panel was made worse this year because one of the men didn’t show up. So it was just me, one other guy, the program director, and the admin for the program on a conference call.

It started off badly on the first proposal. I was set to discuss. My comments were quite long and honestly harsh. I gave a 1/5 because the proposer used a ton of jargon that I didn’t understand, didn’t explain the significance of the work, and instead repeatedly stated, “This work is of great importance to the field,” without actually explaining *why* it was important. My critique was long and detailed to give feedback to the proposer so that they could do better next year. I ended my overview summary by saying, “I feel like this person is trying to pull a fast one on us to trick us into thinking this is great science when nothing was explained.”

The other guy on the panel said, “Huh, well I guess it worked because I gave him a 5/5” Indeed, he did, folks. And you want to know another thing? His only one sentence review said, “This proposal exudes confidence.” What do you think of that? “Exudes confidence.” Honestly, I thought we were reviewing scientific merit, but apparently, we are supposed to be reviewing confidence. Oh no, wait. We aren’t…. And that was the first proposal.

The rest of the panel I was repeatedly ignored by my co-panelist. I would ask him to explain his review, and he would say, “Just read the comments,” instead of answering me. He would be working on something else and then not hear what I said and talk over me and basically repeat exactly what I would say. We went through almost all the proposals like this. The other reviewer? He never logged on.

And then it happened. We had a couple reviews left, and we were discussing a proposal by a woman that I really liked. I was trying to enthusiastically defend this woman and be persuasive about why I liked it. The program officer told me that, despite my enthusiasm and his also, that the woman had mis-proposed and missed the point of the call for proposals. The woman’s cool proposal was outside the scope of the program. I was bummed, but understood.

Co-panelist was supposed to be taking notes and writing a summary, but didn’t seem to be paying attention to our conversation. Of course I don’t know for sure, but I am pretty sure because at about that point, co-panelist said very loudly, “Well this is just very naive! No one does this type of thing anymore! It is just terrible.”

And that is when I did it. I said, “I understand what you are saying, but I would prefer if you didn’t use that word to describe the work. Let’s make sure we aren’t calling it naive in the summary that she gets. She just misproposed and it is outside the scope for this call, but when you say she is naive, it is… I don’t know… it sounds like you are the master and she is the novice. She is a full professor who just mis-proposed.”

He responded, “But it is naive! No one does this type of research anymore. It isn’t novel. It isn’t good.”

I said, “I understand. I just think that naive is one of those words that people use for women and it is code, and I don’t want to use it. Can you use a different word?” And this is bad, folks, because this is where I started tearing up and crying a little. In my defense, I was tired, we just moved across the country for sabbatical, I had to get my kids out the door with neighbors to be on the call on time (and my co-panelist was late, of course), and the stress of having to fend off this jerks’ comments all morning was taking its toll. Oh, and the heat in my apartment was out, and I had not had time to call the landlord.

At this, and his realization that I was crying, co-panelist stated, “You think I’m sexist!”

I say, “No, I didn’t say that. We are all sexist. I am just saying that I don’t want to use that word.”

More denial, “You think I’m sexist! You are just saying this to shut me up. To oppress my opinion. My opinion is reasonable and scientific, and you want to shut me up because you disagree and want to squelch my opinion.”

And this was where I really lost it because I was now being attacked. And honestly, in thinking back, I never called him sexist in that conversation. I never tried to shut down his opinion. I truly just didn’t want to use that word, naive, because it is condescending and it is code for incompetent.

And guess what? It deteriorated so bad that we couldn’t continue the panel. At the end, the program officer called me, and I apologized to the program officer for losing it. I still was upset and crying. He suggested that I call the co-panelist and apologize to him. I never have because honestly, besides getting upset, I do not think I did anything wrong.

You want to know something else? I was removed from the panel. Co-panelist? He is staying. He is an older white, male, well-established, leader in the field. This is how he acts, and I get kicked off. Is that fair?

Story 2: That’a Boy. I have been holding onto the story above for a while because it still hurts to think about, and I wanted time to pass before I communicated it. But this week, I was empowered to tell it because I have another story of doing the same thing that was amazing. And here it is.

 

I am on an international committee to help organize policies for an open access repository of scientific papers. It is the biggest and oldest in the world, so you might have heard of it, and I won’t drop the name here. Anyway, we were discussing a particular woman for a position on a committee. One committee member brought up the fact that she has kids, but they were older, so she might be more available to serve. The committee chair brought up a more relevant point that the woman is doing outsized service (aren’t we all?), and may not have time for this extra service load.

After that discussion, I raised my hand, and said (probably not this well-stated), “In the future, when we are talking about people, can we not bring up their personal lives into the discussion? If she can or cannot serve should be her decision which she can make based on what she knows about her own private life, but we shouldn’t bring it up or speculate.”

The committee chair said, “Yes, I agree. It has no baring. We will ask her, and she will decide. We only need to decide to ask.”

And the first guy said, “Yeah, I only brought it up because another guy is leaving because of having a new baby.”

I said, “Yeah, but he brought that up. We didn’t speculate. He decided and told us. That’s the difference.” and my face must have been beat red by this point, dying of embarrassment, but pushing on because I felt it was important and right.

And the guy responded with, “I’m sorry. You’re probably right.”

And I almost about died of surprise and shock and gratitude for him and the chair of the committee.  I looked at the other women in the room (yes, I wasn’t alone for once), and they smiled at me. And it felt amazing! Such a minor win, but so very important for me.

So, these two stories are reports, examples, of how you can respond to sexism, and how you cannot always control or even expect the response you will get. I think it is getting better. I think we can change. I have hope that my perseverance on this is not for nothing. I do not think I am in the same category at Martin Luther King, but his sentiment was not about special people. His words were about regular people. Regular people need to point things out, or they won’t get better. Protest is not meant to make people comfortable. I suppose what I do is a form of protest. It makes the transgressors more uncomfortable than the innocent. I suppose that is what my stories display more than anything else.

What do you think? Comment or post here. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

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.

S._Sgt._Lorraine_Robitaille,_switchboard_supervisor,_from_Duluth,_Minnesota,_looks_down_the_line_of_the_Victory..._-_NARA_-_199009As I said in the last post, sexism and racism by students is real and exists. I gave some advice for how to combat sexist or racist reviews from students once you got them. I also gave some helpful hints to senior people to help younger people.

Not to be an a-hole, I took my own advice, and talked to a junior faculty member about his last year reviews. This is a perfect time to have this conversation because he is getting ready for this fall’s class. Going through his reviews, there was some definite and easy ways to get him some better evaluation scores. These changes fall along the lines of “Changing 20%” which is the scheme I advocate for making any changes for your life in general (for instance, see here and here). Based on my conversation with my junior colleague, I thought about some things I could share to help everybody score better evaluations.

  1. Never, ever say anything negative about yourself. I have had an entire blog post about this (here). Yes, I have said it before, but as any teacher knows, repetition doesn’t hurt. You should read that post, but also, just take this home: Do not ever say anything negative about yourself in class. It does not matter if it is true. This is actually an easy one to change.
  2. Set Expectations From DAY 1. I have also posted about how best to set expectations and set the tone in your class starting on the first day.
    • Your Syllabus. Your syllabus is your contract with the class. I have a post about your syllabus (here). I stand by what I said here, but I want to make something else very clear: You should make policies that WORK. When I was discussing with my junior colleague, there were a number of modifications to the syllabus that were needed to make it clear about the expectations. In his case, his late work policy was WAY TOO LENIENT. Because he had a “nice” late policy, the students took advantage of him.
    • Confirm the contract. In order to make it clear that the syllabus is a contract, get them to agree to it. I usually ask if they have changes they want to make, and they never do. They are often a little stunned at being asked their opinion.
    • Do something different. Yes, you will go through your syllabus, but you aren’t going to start teaching on day 1, are you? If so, don’t. It is a waste of time. They won’t retain anything. They might not even stay in the class. So, after going through the syllabus and getting is approved, I recommend doing something very different. As I posted previously, I take pictures of all my students. I have them go to the board, four students at a time. They write their names over their heads, and I take their pictures. I never force them, but have never had a student say no. I ask them to put up the name they want me to learn and know. They get to get up out of their seats. They realize that the class is different than other classes. You look whimsical. 
  3. Play to and Destroy Their Stereotypes. That last thing on the last part, where I say, “You look whimsical” this is so important. To me, looking whimsical, is a good thing. And, it undercuts some of their initial, likely stereotypes of me in the class. I prefer to look whimsical rather than incompetent, mean, or difficult. I believe that you must set the tone for their expectations of you. This means you must build an image of yourself in their minds. Unfortunately, they will come with culturally devised, pre-conceived notions of you based on your age, race, gender, hair, clothes, and height.
    • Example 1: Are you a middle-aged, tall, white man? Congratulations, your students will be very likely to think you are smart, competent, and correct all the time! Put on a little charm, act like you care, and you are likely to get very high evaluations.
    • Example 2: Are you a young woman? They will likely think you are incompetent, do not know your material, should be a push-over, and the class should be easy.
    • Read About It: If you are interested in this, I highly recommend this book: Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential by Neffinger and Kohut. It is not necessarily about teaching, but it describes cultural biases and norms for different body shapes, age, race, and genders. It helps you identify the positive stereotypes that you should play up, and those negative ones that you need to combat.
    • Say positive things about yourself: See point #1 above. Students will repeat what you say to them in your evaluations, so why wouldn’t you say positive things about yourself? I am not suggesting you brag or look arrogant. I suggest you mention good things about yourself in passing. Mention that you got tenure. Mention that you were nominated for a teaching award.
    • Tell them you care: This goes with the one above, but it is more specific. Because they will repeat what you say, you need to make sure you are telling them how much you care about them and their learning. You may think it is obvious because you are spending so much time on them, but they really have no idea what you are doing all day. When you are teaching them, I suggest that you tell them that you care and use that as a reason for pushing them. When things get difficult in class, be a cheerleader, be positive, and make it clear that you care. Plus, caring is one of the positive stereotypes of being a woman. The flip-side of this is if they think you don’t care, they will be VERY NEGATIVE about you. So, not only do to need to tell them that you care, you also cannot, under any circumstances, let them know that you don’t care. It is the kiss of death.
    • Realize that different classes may require different personas. When I teach majors, I have a different persona and project a slightly different personality compared to when I teach non-majors. This is because the students have different needs and expectations for me because on their backgrounds. I will probably try to detail and describe this more in a future post, but I believe it is important to keep in mind that your student populations are different depending on the class, the level, and even the year.
  4. Learn their names. An easy way to show them you care is to learn their names and use them. If you have a relatively small class, this is a must. If you have a big class, make sure you learn about 20% of them. Then, call them by name in class when they answer questions or when you call on them.
  5. Start off as a Hard-Ass and Ease Up. Your syllabus may have a strict late policy. For instance, mine is to not accept late homework. And I stick to this because I only count 10/11 homework assignments. But, about half way through, I start to ease up on some students. It isn’t that I really accept late work, but I start to allow somethings like scanned homework assignments emailed to me that I print and add to the pile. I tell the student I will make an exception only once. Why do I do this?
    • It makes me look nice and like I care. And because, honestly, as long as not everyone is doing it, it isn’t difficult on me. If you start as a softie, they walk all over you, and you are making exceptions all the time. There are a number of problems with being too nice: (a) Some kids never take advantage, and they resent that other students got away with stuff, (b) it is harder on you if this happens a lot.
    • Example: Another thing I do is to let them redo the question on their exam they lose the most points on. But, I don’t tell them this at the beginning. I act like it is a spontaneous act of kindness because I care. I want them to learn the thing they missed, and this will allow them to do this. I do this for every exam, because it is good for them to re-try and get right a question they missed. But, it makes me look nice, and that is a bonus.
  6. Be Fair. Part of appearing to care is to be fair. Being too easy or too flexible or allowing students to walk all over you is not fair. One nice thing that that you can often get out of annoying situations by playing the fairness card. For instance, you cannot offer only one person extra credit or accept a late assignment (which will be more hassle and a huge pain to you) because it wouldn’t be fair to everyone else. I use this ALL the time.
    • Give points – don’t take them away: This is perhaps obvious, but psychologically, students often think they are starting at an A and that you are removing points to make them get a lower grade. This, of course, is ridiculous. In fact, they start with zero points, and they must earn points. You need to set this straight from the beginning by making it clear that they are earning points for each assignment. Also, you should make it clear that THEY control their points – you are just reporting on what they do. This can be difficult in classes where they grading is somewhat subjective.
    • Have a rubric for grading: I have a secret. All grading is subjective. As much as we gripe about student evaluations of us, we are constantly evaluating and assessing our students. We have just as much opportunity (more actually) to screw them. We are also biased and can misjudge people. That being said, you should try to be as fair as possible when grading. One way to do that is to make sure you have a rubric when you grade. I also recommend hiding the student names.
    • Other Helpful and Time-Saving Tips:  If you are grading an exam of homework with many problems, you should grade one problem for all students in one sitting. Don’t grade the entire exam and then start on the next entire exam. This will also allow you to stay consistent between students, not look at their name before you grade AND it is much faster, because you can focus on one solution/rubric at a time and not be switching. Most people take 15 minutes to switch between activities, so why would you do this to yourselves??
    • Communicate: All of these policies are for naught if you do not communicate to the students what you are doing or how you are doing it. Fairness is a policy that should be in your syllabus. Most current college students hold this principle above all others. If they prefer for bias (in their favor), you can stick to your principles of fairness in the name of most of the others.
  7. Look accessible. Notice, that I am not saying you should “Be Accessible.” You just need to appear to be accessible. They have to think you are and that helps them realize that you care. Here are a few ways I appear accessible.
    • I have evening office hours. I posted about this before here. Most students could not make my daytime office hours because of other classes and commitments. The office hours are not really office hours, but rather homework sessions which allow me to help more students at one time. It also helps the students to build cohorts. Some students cannot do evenings due to personal issues, and I will make a daytime session, if they ask me, but I prefer evening office hours.
    • I email them back and use instant messenger. This allows me to respond back relatively quickly. I don’t necessarily email back the night before a homework is due, though. I warn them about this before, and tell them it is a conscious, pedagogical choice, so that they will learn to time manage and come to evening office hours. They typically respect this because I am so responsive otherwise.

Whoa! That was a lot of information. Some of it I had touched on or detailed previously, but some of it is new. I hope you find it helpful to keep in mind as you start preparations for Fall semester! Comment or post here, if you have something more to add. I am sure I missed something or there are better ways to do things. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post!

Tag Cloud