Lesson: Don't be a dirtbag
Lawd. It has been a minute since I had time (made time?) to write and think and not compute. It is without doubt that I do all manner of better when I take a bit of time to put some words down. I might start by answering the eternal question of "Sak pase?" , though despite the pithiness of the question, the answer is bulky. I'm in the midst of an impressive balancing act that may collapse at any moment. I've been concomitantly
This is on my experience with balancing efforts to increase diversity in a homogeneous academic field and doing the science research I love. If you have thoughts, please share in the comments.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been shelving my hobbies (writing, painting, making stuff out of other stuff) in lieu of a new task, one that isn’t at all a hobby, but is definitely not part of my job. My job as a graduate student is to absorb knowledge and skills from as many places as I can, to translate what I’ve garnered into some new knowledge, and to put that knowledge into the world as published research. (For context, I also buy and sample international variations on the cheese puff and I watch what my mother would call 'television that does not edify the mind', so it’s not all fun and games.) I do research because I love it and I think it makes me better. I do research because I like to think it might make the world better.
I don’t get to walk out of a discussion about race in science and stop thinking about it because the conversation ended.
But I’m not just a graduate student who does research. I’d like to be just a graduate student, but I’m not and couldn’t be if I wanted to. I and, dare I generalize, other students of color, have an immutable identity laced into our student identities, one that tugs and tightens throughout our years as researchers. I am not just a grad student because my phenotype is something I can’t step out of, can’t tone down, and can’t camouflage into the population of those who are “just grad students”. I showed up in academia with intentions of doing two things: learning and doing science. Steadily, I am realizing that my presence here, against all intentions, will force me to engage with things not wholly scientific. Here in the world of science research, I will have a different experience from most of my peers because I cannot turn off the brightly lit sign above my head that reads “now dealing with issues of diversity”. I don’t get to walk out of a discussion about race in science and stop thinking about it because the conversation ended.
There are many people, peers and senior colleagues alike, who know that the position of students of color in science departments, especially the natural sciences, is an awkward one. It’s a balancing act of sunny commonalities and sobering differences. For persons of color, losing that balance can be a fuck up in either direction. I’ve heard many times in many ways that this additional experience, being tasked with maintaining neutrality while working in a non-neutral system, is exhausting. This tax levied by academic science is certainly felt by minorities of all kinds, but the particular situation of persons of color in natural sciences is something different.
In my department, I’ve helped to start a conversation among students and postdocs about the meaning of diversity in ecology, why inclusion seems just beyond our reach, and whether we have been reaching for it at all. The ensuing dialogue has been supportive and constructive, but has also forced me to think about what it means that I, the only student of African descent in many years, was the one to start it. I’ve felt glad that students and faculty have been involved and action-oriented, yet the feeling that I’ve made myself accountable for the outcomes still nags. The question I circle back to is whether the onus of confronting the homogeneity of ecology tends to fall to me because I am a person of color, and whether I will shoulder that responsibility throughout my career. In one sense, dealing with under-representation is a choice I made knowing the time and effort the initiative would require. In another light, the choice feels much more like triaging wounds and treating the ones we simply can no longer put off. A necessary act.
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More critical than polemical, my goal in sitting and writing this was to get my head around whether the urgency I feel about changing what ecology looks like, where its practitioners come from, is felt as acutely among all graduate students and faculty. If not, I wondered this: what is the effect of dealing with representation and inclusion because your physical identity implicates you and dealing with these issues because engaging is a choice? These are the questions I held onto as I planned what I would say to a room full of Cornell professors at the faculty meeting this week. A few graduate students (really smart and brave graduate students) and I were invited to present our case for increasing diversity among applicants, students and faculty and propose solutions to the issue. For weeks we planned our message, our arguments, our solutions and deliverables (not unlike a grant proposal!). When the day arrived, everyone was nervous, but I think I felt something different from the rest because I am different from the rest. As the only brown-skinned person in the room that day, and only person one would describe as Black in our department, my stomach knotted with the fear of becoming that crusading Black girl.
True nausea, the kind that makes you almost stay home from work, plagued me the night before and throughout the morning. Was I setting a tone for the rest of my academic career, becoming that person who talks about diversity a lot? Was I going to walk into spaces and have people straighten up and speak diplomatically as though I were inspecting endlessly? Again, more nausea. This was that additional tax I’d heard about. The added cost of being forced to rally because for me, for us, the status quo grates. In a moment of lightheaded stress, I likened this predicament to the comments section of online articles. There in the nether regions of a controversial post, where vitriol runs freely, there is always someone who, despite the impossibilities of hate, is compelled to correct and inform and negate what seems overwhelmingly established. Why do you do this, you hopeful idiot? I say this when I errantly scroll down below the ads (“Five Things You’ll Never Believe Victoria Beckham Eats!”). This week I learned why the hail-Mary commenter screams into the internet. She does it because saying something, doing anything, makes it easier to believe that the status quo doesn’t have to be. In the same way, people in any minority group are so experienced in things happening to us that taking a stand, however flailing and hopeless, feels like us happening to things. It’s a subtle difference in state, but it means the difference between object and subject, between passive and active.
To my extreme pleasure, our conversation with our faculty went exceptionally well. Professors were understanding and interested in being involved. They were action-oriented. They listened. I doubt I could ask for a better interaction. But the question I started with remains. Despite these shared gains, does the toll of addressing homogeneity in science unequally affect those in the minority?
“There was an enormous body of masculine opinion to the effect that nothing could be expected of women intellectually. Even if her father did not read out loud these opinions, any girl could read them for herself; and the reading, even in the nineteenth century, must have lowered her vitality, and told profoundly upon her work. There would always have been that assertion—you cannot do this, you are incapable of doing that—to protest against, to overcome.”
This is the epigraph of a paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology titled “Stereotype Threat and Women’s Math Performance” (Spencer et al. 1999). I’ve got to start by saying that this is an amazing quotation to open a paper. Woolf published A Room of One’s Own in 1929, when the borders surrounding the acts of being and doing were explicit and codified for women. Decades later, in 1999, Woolf’s lamentation remained relevant and remains relevant in 2016. Part of Spencer’s doctoral dissertation was this study on the effect of stereotype threat, which the authors define as “the experience of being in a situation where one faces judgment based on societal stereotypes about one’s group”, on how individuals deal with situations where their actions may reinforce the existing stereotype. Not only was this research unique at the time for exploring the experience of being judged or stereotyped, but it also started by focusing on a societally common but rarely critically examined stereotype—that females perform poorly in math compared to males. Spencer hypothesized, correctly, that when you know someone is judging you, that the expectations set for you are low or negative, that knowledge interferes with how well you can do, even if you are capable of performing well.
There was no Summer Jam blog series. I'll come out and say it because I dropped that ball like the sweaty-palmed non-athlete that I am. So there. But I have some other thoughts for you. This post could also be called "Sue Pierre's: Why Did I Get Accepted 2". That's a Tyler Perry reference for those who don't like garbage cinema.
This semester has been a bunch of things to me. It was mostly a time of transition and realizing (but when are we not doing those things?). It was pain and relief too close together to tell apart. Through this semester, I’ve been served a few lessons and one that I want to talk about here, mostly a note to myself.
I switched lab groups. I started a new advising relationship. I worked more independently than ever, and didn’t fail. I published my first paper. I became a mentor. I decided that academia does not equal success. I looked around me and noticed that I’m not the only one who’s feeling exhausted and tired of this grind. And that despite my exhaustion, the reasons to persevere persist. They’re there.
This post is, broadly, about getting what you deserve. In this sense, I won't be discussing anything directly related to research, but this will be about being an academic to some extent. I'll start with a pretty weird experience I had this past week at the Women in the World Summit in New York City. The Summit, which focuses on problems affecting women around the world as well as innovations and triumphs of women, is a fairly exclusive event. Its purpose is to showcase stories of women experiencing and witnessing loss, persecution, trauma and subjugation in an effort to motivate a mostly American audience to take some sort of action towards improving the world for women. I say that it is exclusive primarily because of its cost, which ranges from $50-$300 per day for a three-day event, and the fact that it is a star-studded event featuring numerous big names (Hillary R. Clinton, Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep, the list goes on) and what my untrained eye would call a gala. In effect, the Summit wants to be a sort of feminist national convention while it is actually somewhat less inclusive or progressive than it presents itself. More on this later.
The reason I was able to attend the event (for free) was because I asked to. I decided I wanted to go, contacted some organizers, and sent an email explaining why I and other women at Cornell would benefit from the opportunity. Weeks passed before I heard from organizers and at that point I expected a polite "no". Instead I got a very positive "yes", followed by "we can offer up to 50 tickets". Listen, when I say I was shocked, I was truly mouth agape, high pitched squealing, floored. Their offer further nuances the assertion that the Summit is exclusive, and complicates what I think about the whole event. My point, though, is that through this experience, I was reminded that though I am not entitled to anything and that asking for what I want is the best (only?) way to get anything. I feel extremely grateful for those tickets but at the same time realize that my own feeling of not deserving to attend, due to my lack of funds or social clout or general relevance, would have held me back from even sending that plaintive email. I had a five hour bus ride to NYC to think about the fact that my expectations of what I should and shouldn't have probably hold me (and others!) back from simply asking for what they desire, and that's pretty shitty. Getting to go to the Summit was a good experience, but realizing that my own expectations of what I should and shouldn't have are like a personal roadblock was even better.
Part Deux: When your outcome is nothing like a Mary Kate & Ashley movie
The other thing that happened to me last week was my A exam, the Cornell equivalent of the qualifying exam, which determines your candidacy for a PhD. I'm neurotic (or just extremely into preparedness, a la Jennifer Lopez in Enough), and therefore had been studying for the exam, which is a 2-3 hour verbal ordeal with my PhD committee plus a written assignment, since November 2014. Things got serious when I realized I was two months away from the gauntlet, at which point I stopped responding to most communiques that were not bookended with questions about ecology. I worked every day to make sure I had covered all (or most) of my bases and my only succor was night cheese. I thought that I was highly likely to pass because I DID NOTHING BUT STUDY AND EAT (SOMETIMES). But, so it goes, I was passed conditionally, meaning that I have to do some reading and some writing and take a forest ecology course because I was almost good enough, but not perfect. If anyone reading this knows me (likely no one is reading this so I'm not super worried about it), then you know that I work extremely hard at the things I think are important and pretty much consider myself a deadbeat if I don't meet my own idea of excellence. Guys, I actually couldn't not cry after hearing that I got a conditional pass because I was so, so upset. And this fact only made matters more uncomfortable, because who even cries in front of their PhD committee? Yes, that's correct, only baby geniuses who are both infants and scientists (more on this later).
So, in this case, I worked my ass off to ensure that no component of photosynthesis was left unmemorized, no global carbon flux was without a known size, and still the outcome was not what I thought my efforts warranted. Since I was a small child in a so-so public elementary school, and perhaps even before that, I had been told that hard work and dedication gets you exactly what you want, what you deserve. And as it does for many people, that meant something to me, and when it didn't prove true, I believed some cosmic injustice might be at play. Now, because my self loathing has settled and I've put on my big girl pants (read: any pants at all), I am able to see through my drama cloud to the reality of things: that there is an element of randomness even in the midst of preparedness that necessitates taking a good look at failure and saying "yup, that's a thing that happened, and my value as a human remains more or less in tact". Though obvious, this last part is kind of the crux of a problem with people like me, like plenty of young PhD students, who often measure their value by their academic success. Many millenials are raised to believe that hard work makes one deserving of success and don't always know how to make sense of normal, run of the mill failure. I find that the logical converse, that failure puts a mirror to our personal work ethic, has kind of screwed us up.
So here's the take away: that youngish, smartish, academic women probably don't think they are good enough to have things and thus don't ask for the things they want. Those same people have been brought up believing that enough effort makes one deserving of success, and that coming up short is a sure sign of one's character. To conclude, I say "dang, we need to reevaluate".
I've been happily plodding along, hopeful and unaware, towards what I thought would be my first published paper. It's nothing big, nothing earth-shattering, but it's mine (and a few other people's), and I've been working at it for so goddamn long (relative to the rest of my life). But it recently occurred to me, halfway through the process of responding to reviewer comments, that my data may be have been misrepresented by the statistical analyses I used. Misrepresented. I'm going to let you sit with that for a minute because it took me over an hour to move past this fact. My interpretations and conclusions in my already-peer-reviewed paper might be bullshit, and this alters the message of the paper I've already submitted.
I sat in my office nearly the entire day, hardly moving, rapidly typing, deleting and retyping R code to try and figure out where things went wrong. By the end of the day I was exhausted, hella cranky, and still wanting for answers. More than anything, I was worried about what the senior scientist with whom I'm collaborating would think. We were 3 days away from our resubmission deadline, my conclusions had suddenly seemed as valid as a snowball on the Senate floor, and I was unable to decide whether to press on or retract the questionable data.
Though the other two problems still exist, the last one is no longer an issue. It took me a few minutes of hand-wringing and light whining to realize that I can't publish something that I doubt. I'm disappointed with the current situation, but I'm coming away with a lesson in science ethics. You just don't put something out unless you're data say it's true. As for my paper, she will eventually see the light of day, but I need to do a bit more tinkering before her debut. I'm trying to think of it as progress, not failure.
To document interesting ideas about science and nature and reflect on the experience of being a scientist from the margins.