Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Doing Science and Being a Scientist

It's been a really long, tiresome, but educational job-hunt season this year and I'll be the first to admit it.  Teaching outside of my usual student demographic has taught me a lot about myself, the world, the educational system, and goals for higher ed.  Many moons ago- more than I care to admit- I started graduate school with the idea that I would work someday in a research lab in a big R1 school and spend most of my time working on research.  Thanks to funding cuts to grant providers and educational institutions, the impossibly low grant funding rate, high stress levels and my aversion to them, and my interest in not going absolutely insane, I've had to rethink those goals over the years.  At this point in time, I'd be happy with a full-time teaching job, and time around that job to work on research on my own terms.  I'm trying and most days I'm successful, but it's hard not to see that view as admitting defeat. 

Kevin over at Deep Sea News recently wrote a great piece about why he's leaving science that has gotten a lot of attention and had people speaking about the problem of scientists leaving the sciences.  Unsurprisingly, the conversation struck a cord for me, and left me grasping for a solution.  Having a historian in the house, I often go to historical contexts and similar situations across history, and this current paradigm does have some historic precedent.  Not necessarily people leaving the sciences, but people choosing to work on science outside of traditional science careers (the lab, engineering, etc.).  My personal interest in identity lead me down a thought path that, for me at least, was helpful, and might be useful for others in some sciences as well. 

The question in my mind came down to "Am I a scientist inherently, or is my identification as scientist tied to my career situation?"  And in my case, the answer was that I don't "do science" but instead I "am a scientist."  Especially in a world of growing crowd-source funding possibilities and citizen scientist initiatives, being a scientist outside of the walls of funded science research in industry and the academy has never been easier.  Obviously, not all sciences are going to be able to work in this way, but for ecologists like me, I think this may be a viable option.  The hard part is the issue of privilege, because precious few people can take on the weight of student loans to get through a higher graduate degree, which means the perspective of people doing this is likely to be limited.  For our family, however, this seems to be a good compromise.  I'll continue teaching, part-time as I have been or hopefully full-time in the near future, and I can use my "off" time to further my own research, participate in citizen science ventures, edit and write academic papers, and stay connected to the academic world in those ways. 

You can take the scientist out of the lab, but you can't take...  That started out better than it ended up, my apologies, but I hope you get my drift.  I don't have to let my career define me, and there's no reason that other researchers can't follow this same path for a while.  The older professors have to retire sometime, right?  Until then, I'm going to keep doing what I do and remember what my parents taught me- Do what you love, and love what you do, and you'll do it better than someone who does it for the paycheck.

And in other news- you'll be seeing an additional page on here soon, as I was accepted for the Sigma Xi Student Showcase

Monday, February 25, 2013

Trying Time

We recently got El Shorto the seven year old his own alarm clock.  He wanted one, and we thought it would be a nice change from having to wake him up every school morning.  He wanted one because 1) he saw a Spiderman alarm clock that looked "AWESOME!", 2) he's been all about figuring out time lately, and 3) he thinks he wants to be a grown up.  Or at least a big-kid.  I keep explaining that growing up is not at all what it's cracked up to be, but he doesn't listen.  I'm the mom, so what would I know about anything, right?  Besides, I'm probably just plotting to keep all the coolness and amazingness that is grown-up-dom to myself.  Obviously. 

But we caved, and we got him a clock.  It has flashing lights.  It has a buzzer.  It has Spiderman.  And it has labeled hands.  What on earth could be better than this contraption?!  Why, continuing to ask incessantly, "Is it past noon yet?" at nine in the morning, of course.

Of course, being cooler than all get out in no way means that he'll actually wake up to it.  But he keeps trying every morning, or saying he's going to try each night before he goes to bed.  We've had similar luck with answering the "How many days until..." question by getting him a calendar.  Basically what I'm saying is that my kid is impervious to learning, at least when it comes to time. 

He's a smart kid; Dwight and I know it, his teacher knows it, and most people that spend much time with him know it (assuming they know how old he really is, which is far more difficult than one would think).  He's also stubborn and lazy and impatient.  It's a dangerous combination, I tell you what, and has created quite a bit of frustration in our household over the years. 

It's a funny thing, our perception of time.  I speak of El Shorto, because his difficulties with time are the most noticeable right now, but even us grown-ups have our own trouble with time.  It moves too slowly on Monday, and moves too fast as our children grow.  Or at least it does for me, but you may be totally different.  Maybe it's all the years of watching Doctor Who finally catching up and time-warping my mind and my genetics.  Whatever it is, the clock seems to hold little sway in Chez Me right now, and less so the more I focus on it, while time seems ever more subjective and fluid.  I just hope this spring comes quickly so El Shorto and I can relax a bit and pay less attention to the dreaded tick-tock.  With this fickle weather and and too-short days, how do your days fly (or crawl)?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Keep on Rolling with My Rock

Dwight and I have been trying to tackle health and fitness stuff this year.  We both want to lose some weight, more importantly be healthier, and working out together seems to be a good compromise between "doing nothing" and "going to counseling" to help us be a better us (and it's cheaper).  It's still time together, we talk usually, it improves our mood, and it's showing that we value each other and ourselves.  Both of us think it's been helpful, even if sometimes our talks aren't all nice.  Relationships are like that, right?  They aren't always nice, but the goal is to work through things instead of bottling it up for the sake of not arguing.  I'm sure on those not-so-nice days we're good entertainment for anyone people watching the track. 

Today while we were walking, a thought occurred to me.  I'm not quite sure how or what brought it up, but there it was.  I've complained often enough- or maybe too often- about him and others not being there after my sister's death.  A part of me gets it; suicide is not easy to talk about, and makes a lot of people uncomfortable, even more so than a death from other causes.  And he will admit that he didn't step up to fill in while I was basically half a person for that initial year, so it's not like we fight about that.  This morning it wasn't his unwillingness to help out that came to my mind.

Well, OK, it was that, but not in the usual way.  When I was in that extremely dark place and wondering if there was even an end of the tunnel to come out on, let alone try to see the light from, I freely admit that I was not so nice myself.  I'm not proud of that, and I wish I hadn't been ugly in response to the ugliness that I was feeling, but I'm human and have faults.  I'm told those two things go together, and my faults serve to reinforce my self-image as human instead of some kind of troglodyte. 

But even in my ugliness, Dwight did exactly what he always does- he was there.  He stayed here.  He could have left, and the universe knows I gave him reason and opportunity in spades.  When everything else was swirling and floating away, he stuck around.  I've been known to say that Dwight was my rock- and he really is- so why I should be surprised at the sheer inertia of my rock is beyond me.  He did exactly what he always does, no more and no less. 

And in retrospect, that's exactly what I needed.  He let me come through this not on my own, but with my own two feet, walking beside me.  He didn't carry me or my baggage, and if he had I would have considered it patronizing (and been mad at him).  He helped me by staying true to himself and letting me see my own strength when finally after a year and a half I'm digging back out of my hole.  Funny how life may not give us what we want, but we always get exactly what we need if we just learn to recognize it.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Education and the State of the Union

You’ll probably find this hard to believe, but in my husband’s and my house reading is a huge thing.  We were both bookworms as kids, and today we spend large chunks of every day reading; news, academic texts, students’ assignments, and our own writings are daily events.  We have tried to pass this same love of reading on to Kenny as well.  Dwight read to my round belly before Kenny was born, and I read him his first academic article when he was just a few days old.  Reading together as a family is a favorite pass time for all of us (we’re currently working on the Hobbit).

You can imagine our surprise, then, when Kenny entered this school year reading well below his grade.  We had tried to prepare ourselves somewhat, but didn’t expect as large a deficit as the teacher explained to us.  “It’s only first grade.”  “Expectations have changed since we were kids.”  “He’ll get it eventually.”  We had told each other all these things prior to his school start, but none of it mattered when we sat learning that our son was “severely deficient” in the subject that we considered most critical, for how can one learn harder subjects if the act of reading is difficult as well?  We both knew the research, that kids not reading well by third grade statistically rarely are able to excel the way kids reading well by third grade do.  Before third grade, kids learn to read; after that, they read to learn (using reading as a way to answer questions).  If Kenny was behind this early on, how was he going to make that first important academic goal?  (And when I say “we” I may mean “I”; Dwight might be a little more laid-back than I am, and I’m OK with that)

Fortunately for us, our school has a Title I reading program, and Kenny’s lack made him eligible.  We also heard of a reading tutoring program that Kent State was putting on, and signed him up for that, too.  We made sure to have all of our bases covered, so that he would be up to grade level soon enough.  Fast forward to now, and he’s a reading fanatic, pulling any book he feels like off the shelves at home and starting into the text.  He reads above level, and has started reading to learn a bit.  He still loves his reading club and reading tutoring, but those are now seen more as incentives to doing well than the chores they once were.

Here’s the thing, though, Ken’s school reading program and reading tutoring were both funded by federal dollars.  So when Marco Rubio- or any politician, really- gets up on his high horse complaining about government spending and the need for austerity, while acknowledging that he’s benefitted from federal spending, it chaps my bum more than just a little.  Carol Hanisch, the women’s liberation writer and activist, popularized the phrase “The personal is political” and I agree wholeheartedly with that assessment.  

I’m not against cutting federal spending, and indeed we have to cut spending as well as increase revenue; the real matter is where to make those changes.  Making budgetary cuts to education, especially early childhood education may have the short-term benefit of reducing federal spending, but it has the long-term impact of reducing and/or denying to younger generations the benefits that we had.  And more importantly, it denies the country of a well-informed, well-educated next generation, which is critical if the US to continue to be a growing, dynamic country.  Making cuts to programs that benefit children is cutting of our nose to spite our face.  

Obviously, there would be some portion of students that would continue to get the excellent education that is required to forge leaders.  The reality in the US, however, is that socio-economic status and educational opportunity is still very much confounded by race and ethnicity.  This current situation, if partnered with cuts to formative educational services, could deprive the next generation of the benefit that a diverse and well-educated leadership provides, that of multiple experiences and perspectives.  Failure to provide equitable educational opportunities to all children enshrines inequality for another generation.  

And if it isn’t the role of the federal government’s role to concern itself with equality of opportunity, who’s role, pray tell, is it?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Not Going the Way of the Dodo Quite Yet...

So I've been in the midst of interview-torture lately.  Tenure track jobs are most of what I applied for, with some visiting professorships and post-doc positions, but my preference is (obviously) tenure track.  Well-meaning family and friends have been asking about the status of job applications, and while I appreciate the thought, a part of me hates discussing it all.  There's never enough news to report, and it's fairly boring stuff.  The talks do, however, give me a chance with friends and family members to explain some of this whole crazy process.  Not that I'm the best to do that, having not landed a tenure track job yet, but I can speak to some of the ordeal and answer a few questions about an experience that is utterly foreign to the lucky majority of the world. 

The thing is, I have a funny affinity for "shop-talk" about the academy.  The university- for all the changes it has gone through, is going through, and will go through- has stood the test of time and served society quite well thus far, and I'd wager that it still has more to offer to the global community.  Universities, to be sure, have also benefited from their role in the communities they serve.  Being a part of the university community as an individual comes with its own rights and responsibilities, according to the role one plays there. 

In the case of tenure track faculty, the responsibility is to teach their students to the best of their ability, conduct research to further the general knowledge of their professional field, and to provide service to the university community.  In return, a faculty member that performs to the level expected of tenured faculty may be granted tenure after a period of time and a tenure review.  Tenure itself has gotten a bad rap lately, and I'll agree that there are times when it has been abused by some faculty members.  This happens in every profession, as humans are far from perfect, so I hardly feel that this requires doing away with tenure as some politicians are attempting. 

Rather than protecting teachers who are not doing their job, the purpose of tenure is to protect academic freedom.  Without academic freedom we risk introducing politics into research and teaching.  I'm not talking about "The professor is making me learn evolution and my family doesn't agree with that" politics, I'm talking about "Let's not talk about the US when discussing sex trafficking" types of politics in education.  There's a difference between disagreeing on objective and subjective matters.  The protections of tenure, however, are there to ensure that teachers are not punished simply for teaching unpopular theories with significant evidence supporting them.  Tenure is also to protect researchers who do controversial but worthwhile research. 

This is what's exciting to me- being a part of a community that encourages and fosters critical thinking, analysis, and investigation.  It's that role of the university that, in my opinion, is not yet finished.  Can it be improved?  Of course.  But let's not throw out the baby with the bath water.