The danger of pointing out bad behavior: retribution (and the community’s role in preventing it).

There has been a lot of discussion of Dario Maestripieri’s disappointment at the unattractiveness of his female colleagues in the neuroscience community. Indeed, it’s notable how much of this discussion has been in public channels, not just private emails or conversations conducted with sound waves which then dissipate into the aether. No doubt, this is related to Maestripieri’s decision to share his hot-or-not assessment of the women in his profession in a semi-public space where it could achieve more permanence — and amplification — than it would have as an utterance at the hotel bar.

His behavior became something that any member of his scientific community with an internet connection (and a whole lot of people outside his scientific community) could inspect. The impacts of an actual, rather than hypothetical, piece of behavior, could be brought into the conversation about the climate of professional and learning communities, especially for the members of these communities who are women.

It’s worth pointing out that there is nothing especially surprising about such sexist behavior* within these communities. The people in the communities who have been paying attention have seen them before (and besides have good empirical grounds for expecting that gender biases may be a problem). But many sexist behaviors go unreported and unremarked, sometimes because of the very real fear of retribution.

What kind of retribution could there be for pointing out a piece of behavior that has sexist effects, or arguing that it is an inappropriate way for a member of the professional community to behave?

Let’s say you are an early career scientist, applying for a faculty post. As it happens, Dario Maestripieri‘s department, the University of Chicago Department of Comparative Human Development, currently has an open search for a tenure-track assistant professor. There is a non-zero chance that Dario Maestripieri is a faculty member on that search committee, or that he has the ear of a colleague that is.

It is not a tremendous stretch to hypothesize that Dario Maestripieri may not be thrilled at the public criticism he’s gotten in response to his Facebook post (including some quite close to home). Possibly he’s looking through the throngs of his Facebook friends and trying to guess which of them is the one who took the screenshot of his ill advised post and shared it more widely. Or looking through his Facebook friends’ Facebook friends. Or considering which early career neuroscientists might be in-real-life friends or associates with his Facebook friends or their Facebook friends.

Now suppose you’re applying for that faculty position in his department and you happen to be one of his Facebook friends,** or one of their Facebook friends, or one of the in-real-life friends of either of those.

Of course, shooting down an applicant for a faculty position for the explicit reason that you think he or she may have cast unwanted attention on your behavior towards your professional community would be a problem. But there are probably enough applicants for the position, enough variation in the details of their CVs, and enough subjective judgment on the part of the members of the search committee in evaluating all those materials that it would be possible to cut all applicants who are Dario Maestripieri’s Facebook friends (or their Facebook friends, or in-real-life friends of either of those) from consideration while providing some other plausible reason for their elimination. Indeed, the circle could be broadened to eliminate candidates with letters of recommendation from Dario Maestripieri’s Facebook friends (or their Facebook friends, or in-real-life friends of either of those), candidates who have coauthored papers with Dario Maestripieri’s Facebook friends (or their Facebook friends, or in-real-life friends of either of those), etc.)

And, since candidates who don’t get the job generally aren’t told why they were found wanting — only that some other candidate was judged to be better — these other plausible reasons for shooting down a candidate would only even matter in the discussions of the search committee.

In other words, real retaliation (rejection from consideration for a faculty job) could fall on people who are merely suspected of sharing information that led to Dario Maestripieri becoming the focus of a public discussion of sexist behavior — not just on the people who have publicly spoken about his behavior. And, the retaliation would be practically impossible to prove.

If you don’t think this kind of possibility has a chilling effect on the willingness of members of a professional community to speak up when they see a relatively powerful colleague behave in they think is harmful, you just don’t understand power dynamics.

And even if Dario Maestripieri has no part at all in his department’s ongoing faculty search, there are other interactions within his professional community in which his suspicions about who might have exposed his behavior could come into play. Senior scientists are routinely asked to referee papers submitted to scientific journals and to serve on panels and study sections that rank applications for grants. In some of these circumstances, the identities of the scientists one is judging (e.g., for grants) are known to the scientists making the evaluations. In others, they are masked, but the scientists making the evaluations have hunches about whose work they are evaluating. If those hunches are mingled with hunches about who could have shared evidence of behavior that is now making the evaluator’s life difficult, it’s hard to imagine the grant applicant or the manuscript author getting a completely fair shake.

Let’s pause here to note that the attitude Dario Maestripieri’s Facebook posting reveals, that it’s appropriate to evaluate women in the field on their physical beauty rather than their scientific achievements, could itself be a source of bias as he does things that are part of a normal professional life, like serving on search committees, reviewing journal submissions and grant applications, evaluating students, and so forth. A bias like this could manifest itself in a preference for hiring job candidates one finds aesthetically pleasing. (Sure, academic job application packets usually don’t include a headshot, but even senior scientists have probably heard of Google Image search.) Or it could manifest itself in a preference against hiring more women (since too high a concentration of female colleagues might be perceived as increasing the likelihood that one would be taken to task for freely expressing one’s aesthetic preferences about women in the field). Again, it would be extraordinarily hard to prove the operation of such a bias in any particular case — but that doesn’t rule out the possibility that it is having an effect in activities where members of the professional community are supposed to be as objective as possible.

Objectivity, as we’ve noted before, is hard.

We should remember, though, that faculty searches are conducted by committees, rather than by a single individual with the power to make all the decisions. And, the University of Chicago Department of Comparative Human Development (as well as the University of Chicago more generally) may recognize that it is likely to be getting more public scrutiny as a result of the public scrutiny Dario Maestripieri has been getting.

Among other things, this means that the department and the university have a real interest in conducting a squeaky-clean search that avoids even the appearance of retaliation. In any search, members of the search committee have a responsibility to identify, disclose, and manage their own biases. In this search, discharging that responsibility is even more vital. In any search, members of the hiring department have a responsibility to discuss their shared needs and interests, and how these should inform the selection of the new faculty member. In this search, that discussion of needs and interests must include a discussion of the climate within the department and the larger scientific community — what it is now, and what members of the department think it should be.

In any search, members of the hiring department have an interest in sharing their opinions on who the best candidate might be, and to having a dialogue around the disagreements. In this search, if it turns out one of the disagreements about a candidate comes down to “I suspect he may have been involved in exposing my Facebook post and making me feel bad,” well, arguably there’s a responsibility to have a discussion about that.

Ask academics what it’s like to hire a colleague and it’s not uncommon to hear them describe the experience as akin to entering a marriage. You’re looking for someone with whom you might spend the next 30 years, someone who will grow with you, who will become an integral part of your department and its culture, even to the point of helping that departmental culture grow and change. This is a good reason not to choose the new hire based on the most superficial assessment of what each candidate might bring to the relationship — and to recognize that helping one faculty member avoid discomfort might not be the most important thing.

Indeed, Dario Maestripieri’s colleagues may have all kinds of reasons to engage him in uncomfortable discussions about his behavior that have nothing to do with conducting a squeaky-clean faculty search. Their reputations are intertwined, and leaving things alone rather than challenging Dario Maestripieri’s behavior may impact their own ability to attract graduate students or maintain the respect of undergraduates. These are things that matter to academic scientists — which means that Dario Maestripieri’s colleagues have an interest in pushing back for their own good and the good of the community.

The pushback, if it happens, is likely to be just as invisible publicly as any retaliation against job candidates for possibly sharing the screenshot of Dario Maestripieri’s Facebook posting. If positive effects are visible, it might make it seem less dangerous for members of the professional community to speak up about bad behavior when they see it. But if the outward appearance is that nothing has changed for Dario Maestripieri and his department, expect that there will be plenty of bad behavior that is not discussed in public because the career costs of doing so are just too high.

* This is not at all an issue about whether Dario Maestripieri is a sexist. This is an issue about the effects of the behavior, which have a disproportionate negative impact on women in the community. I do not know, or care, what is in the heart of the person who displays these behaviors, and it is not at all relevant to a discussion of how the behaviors affect the community.

** Given the number of his Facebook friends and their range of ages, career stages, etc., this doesn’t strike me as improbable. (At last check, I have 11 Facebook friends in common with Dario Maestripieri.)

Reading the writing on the (Facebook) wall: a community responds to Dario Maestripieri.

Imagine an academic scientist goes to a big professional meeting in his field. For whatever reason, he then decides to share the following “impression” of that meeting with his Facebook friends:

My impression of the Conference of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans. There are thousands of people at the conference and an unusually high concentration of unattractive women. The super model types are completely absent. What is going on? Are unattractive women particularly attracted to neuroscience? Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain? No offense to anyone..

Maybe this is a lapse in judgment, but it’s no big thing, right?

I would venture, from the selection of links collected below discussing Dario Maestripieri and his recent social media foible, this is very much A Thing. Read on to get a sense of how the discussion is unfolding within the scientific community and the higher education community:

Drugmonkey, SfN 2012: Professors behaving badly:

There is a very simple response here. Don’t do this. It’s sexist, juvenile, offensive and stupid. For a senior scientist it is yet another contribution to the othering of women in science. In his lab, in his subfield, in his University and in his academic societies. We should not tolerate this crap.

Professor Maestripieri needs to apologize for this in a very public way and take responsibility for his actions. You know, not with a nonpology of “I’m sorry you were offended” but with an “I shouldn’t have done that” type of response.

Me, at Adventures in Ethics and Science, The point of calling out bad behavior:

It’s almost like people have something invested in denying the existence of gender bias among scientists, the phenomenon of a chilly climate in scientific professions, or even the possibility that Dario Maestripieri’s Facebook post was maybe not the first observable piece of sexism a working scientist put out there for the world to see.

The thing is, that denial is also the denial of the actual lived experience of a hell of a lot of women in science

Isis the Scientist, at On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess, What We Learn When Professorly d00ds Take to Facebook:

Dr. Maestripieri’s comments will certainly come as no great shock to the women who read them.  That’s because those of us who have been around the conference scene for a while know that this is pretty par for the course.  There’s not just sekrit, hidden sexism in academia.  A lot of it is pretty overt.  And many of us know about the pockets of perv-fest that can occur at scientific meetings.  We know which events to generally avoid.  Many of us know who to not have cocktails with or be alone with, who the ass grabbers are, and we share our lists with other female colleagues.  We know to look out for the more junior women scientists who travel with us.  I am in no way shocked that Dr. Maestripieri would be so brazen as to post his thoughts on Facebook because I know that there are some who wouldn’t hesistate to say the same sorts of things aloud. …

The real question is whether the ability to evaluate Dr. Maestripieri’s asshattery in all of its screenshot-captured glory will actually actually change hearts and minds.

Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel, University of Chicago Professor Very Disappointed that Female Neuroscientists Aren’t Sexier:

Professor Maestripieri is a multiple-award winning academic working at the University of Chicago, which basically means he is Nerd Royalty. And, judging by his impressive resume, which includes a Ph.D in Psychobiology, the 2000 American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology, and several committees at the U of C, he’s well aware of how hard someone in his position has had to work in order to rise to the top of an extremely competitive and demanding field. So it’s confusing to me that he would fail to grasp the fact that women in his field had to perform similar work and exhibit similar levels of dedication that he did.

Women: also people! Just like men, but with different genitals!

Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing, Why casual sexism in science matters:

I’ve got a daughter who, at four and a half, wants to be a scientist. Every time she says this, it makes me swell up with so much pride, I almost bust. If she grows up to be a scientist, I want her to be judged on the reproducibility of her results, the elegance of her experimental design, and the insight in her hypotheses, not on her ability to live up to someone’s douchey standard of “super model” looks.

(Also, do check out the conversation in the comments; it’s very smart and very funny.)

Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Education, (Mis)Judging Female Scientists:

Pity the attendees at last week’s annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience who thought they needed to focus on their papers and the research breakthroughs being discussed. It turns out they were also being judged — at least by one prominent scientist — on their looks. At least the female attendees were. …

Maestripieri did not respond to e-mail messages or phone calls over the past two days. A spokesman for the University of Chicago said that he had decided not to comment.

Pat Campbell at Fairer Science, No offense to anyone:

I’m glad the story hit Inside Higher Ed; I find it really telling that only women are quoted … Inside Higher Ed makes this a woman’s problem not a science problem and that is a much more important issue than Dario Maestripieri’s stupid comments.

Beryl Benderly at the Science Careers Blog, A Facebook Furor:

There’s another unpleasant implication embedded in Maestripieri’s post. He apparently assumed that some of his Facebook readers would find his observations interesting or amusing. This indicates that, in at least some circles, women scientists are still not evaluated on their work but rather on qualities irrelevant to their science. …

[T]he point of the story is not one faculty member’s egregious slip.  It is the apparently more widespread attitudes that this slip reveals

Dana Smith at Brain Study, More sexism in science:

However, others still think his behavior was acceptable, writing it off as a joke and telling people to not take it so seriously. This is particularly problematic given the underlying gender bias we know to still exist in science. If we accept overt and covert discrimination against women in science we all lose out, not just women who are dissuaded from the field because of it, but also everyone who might have benefited from their future work.

Minerva Cheevy at Research Centered (Chronicle of Higher Education Blog Network), Where’s the use of looking nice?:

There’s just no winning for women in academia – if you’re unattractive, then you’re a bad female. But if you’re attractive, you’re a bad academic.

The Maroon Editorial Board at The Chicago Maroon, Changing the conversation:

[T]his incident offers the University community an opportunity to reexamine our culture of “self-deprecation”—especially in relation to the physical attractiveness of students—and how that culture can condone assumptions which are just as baseless and offensive. …

Associating the depth of intellectual interests with a perceived lack of physical beauty fosters a culture of permissiveness towards derogatory comments. Negative remarks about peers’ appearances make blanket statements about their social lives and demeanors more acceptable. Though recently the popular sentiment among students is that the U of C gets more attractive the further away it gets from its last Uncommon App class, such comments stem from the same type of confused associations—that “normal” is “attractive” and that “weird” is not. It’s about time that we distance ourselves from these kinds of normative assumptions. While not as outrageous as Maestripieri’s comments, the belief that intelligence should be related to any other trait—be it attractiveness, normalcy, or social skills—is just as unproductive and illogical.

It’s quite possible that I’ve missed other good discussions of this situation and its broader implications. If so, please feel free to share links to them in the comments.

On the apparent horrors of requiring high school students to take chemistry.

There’s a guest post on the Washington Post “Answer Sheet” blog by David Bernstein entitled “Why are you forcing my son to take chemistry?” in which the author argues against his 15-year-old son’s school’s requirement that all its students take a year of chemistry.

Derek Lowe provides a concise summary of the gist:

My son will not be a chemist. He will not be a scientist. A year of chemistry class will do nothing for him but make him miserable. He could be taking something else that would be doing him more good.

Bernstein’s post is a slurry of claims about chemistry, secondary education, and the goals of education more generally with respect to human flourishing — in other words, the kind of thing I need to take apart for close examination before responding.

So, that’s what I’m going to do here.

Let’s start with Bernstein’s account of the dawning of the horror:

I discovered that my 15-year-old  son must suffer through a year of chemistry because a “Committee of Ten” academics was assembled in 1892 in order to standardize the curriculum (how’s that for a bad idea?) and recommended that chemistry, among other subjects, be taught to everyone everywhere.

Bernstein is right that tradition is not in itself a good reason to require that all high school students take a year-long chemistry course. On the other hand, tradition is not in itself a good reason to assert that a year-long chemistry course is a wrongheaded requirement.

The author proceeds to make noises acknowledging that he is glad that someone in our society is doing chemistry, what with all the goodies it delivers to enhance our modern lifestyles. He even writes:

[M]y very own mother, who if I am lucky will never lay eyes on this article, is a chemist, and believes that chemistry is the most noble of human pursuits and doesn’t understand how I, a former philosophy major, was able to eke out a living.

I have some thoughts here, as someone who has been both a chemistry major and a philosophy major. First, Bernstein does not exactly do philosophy majors proud in his post, given that he projects the (mistaken) view that the whole point of philosophy is to provoke. But, his revelation that he was philosophy-majoring chemist’s spawn seems to hint at … let’s call them generational differences of opinion. It strikes me that Bernstein might do well to attend to such generational differences of opinion — and to the possibility that they may also be present in his interactions with his own offspring. More about this anon.

Bernstein then goes through the reasons he has heard to justify the requirement that his 15-year-old must take a year of high school chemistry. First up is the problem of American competitiveness and the pressing shortage of science. To this, Bernstein replies:

[M]y son is not going to be a scientist. The very thought of it makes me laugh.

Don’t get me wrong — I think “American competitiveness” is a less-than-compelling reason to require high school students to take much of anything. But on what basis can Bernstein make this claim about his 15-year-old son? Most 15-year-olds of my acquaintance (and no small number of 25-year-olds, not to mention 35-year-olds) have very little solid idea what they want to be when they grow up. They are focused on the pressing problem of figuring out who they’re going to be, not on what they’re going to do for a living.

Parents may have hunches about their kids’ aptitudes and affinities, but we need to be honest that we can’t know for sure. Bernstein should at least entertain the possibility that an inspiring science teacher might make a career in science, or at least further study in chemistry, something his son wants.

Of course, it’s possible I’ve misread Bernstein as being descriptive here where he’s really being prescriptive: No child of mine is going to do something as disgraceful as becoming a scientist!

We turn to another possible reason for the chemistry requirement, and Bernstein’s response:

Chemistry will teach him analytical skills that he can apply to other fields.

Great. So will a hundred other possible subjects that will be less painful and potentially even more interesting to him. An experimental physicist recently told me that at this phase in chemistry instruction “it’s all about memorization anyway.”

To start, how exactly does Bernstein know ahead of time which subjects will be less painful and which will be potentially interesting? Hearsay and innuendo from a chemistry-hating parent may not be enough to make an accurate determination. On top of this, why think that high school chemistry should be essentially a matter of rote memorization and those other possible subjects are not?

On this point, See Arr Oh provides a particularly useful response:

Mr. Bernstein argues against mainstream chemistry education as “all memorization.” Well, I’ll agree – there’s a lot to take in that first go-around. But while elemental numbering, valence electrons, and balancing equations sound rote and boring up front, the trends are the critical information. What makes atoms bigger or smaller? Why are ionic (charged) and covalent (shared) bonds so different? What does acidic or basic really mean? Once mastered, these types of rational thinking – using data to read trends – show up in all sorts of other pursuits, from buying stocks to choosing a healthy diet.

I will add that high school chemistry, when taught well, has very little rote memorization of seemingly unconnected facts. I know this because my memory is not good (and is even worse in test conditions), and I came out of my high school chemistry class with a reasonably good feel for the kind of rational thinking See Arr Oh is talking about.

Derek Lowe also supports the view that what you want from a chemistry class is not perfect recall of a pile of facts:

I think, after a basic list of facts and concepts, that what I’d like for kids to get out of a science class is the broader idea of experimentation – that the world runs by physical laws which can be interrogated. Isolating variables, varying conditions, generating new hypotheses: these are habits of mind that actually do come in handy in the real world, whether you remember what an s orbital is or not. I’m not sure how well these concepts get across, though.

Habits of mind are the intended long-term take-away from a high school science class. High school science classes that are taught well actually deliver some familiarity with those habits of mind. Bernstein may have a legitimate concern that the quality of chemistry instruction in his son’s school is not sufficient to deliver the goods, but then might be better off arguing for better chemistry instruction, not against requiring chemistry in the first place.

Indeed, it doesn’t sound like Bernstein has much use for the habits of mind one might develop in a chemistry course in his own life. As Derek Lowe muses:

[A]lthough I’d like people to know some of these things, I wonder if not knowing them has harmed [Bernstein] too much. What might have harmed him, though, is a lack of knowledge of those broader points. Or a general attitude that science is That Stuff Those Other People Understand. You make yourself vulnerable to being taken in if you carry that worldview around with you, because claiming scientific backing is a well-used ploy. You should know enough to at least not be taken in easily.

It’s good to know enough about how the scientific knowledge gets built, in other words, not to end up unwittingly buying a monthly supply of snake oil.

Bernstein raises, and responds to, another justification for a chemistry requirement:

Kids must be exposed to different subjects in order to know what they’re good at and interested in.

Again, agreed. Maybe kids can survey several science classes over the course of a year or two, and explore various options. They can be given a taste of a veritable potpourri of subjects throughout their education. But my son is not being exposed to chemistry, he’s forced to spend a year of his life studying chemistry every day, which translates into a year of misery for him and our entire family, and paying for tutors who just get him through the course.

There’s quite a bit to unpack in this response.

One of the issues here is about the relative value of a science curriculum that takes a shallow look at a broad range of subjects compared to a science curriculum that goes deeper into a more narrowly focused piece of subject matter. Which approach does a better job helping students notice, and partake of, the applied rational thinking and habits of mind that See Arr Oh and Derek Lowe identify as the most useful bits of intro level chemistry? My own sense, from the perspective of someone who has taught intro chemistry and who felt pretty lost for the first quarter of my own high school chemistry course, is that it takes time, practice, and depth of engagement to do anything that resembles “thinking like a chemist”. It’s worth noting, though, that the unifying principles of chemistry (those things that kept it from becoming a long list of disjointed facts to memorize for the test) were a lot closer to the surface than they seemed to be in high school biology.

Another issue here relates to more than just one’s scientific education. What does it mean to be exposed to a topic in a useful way? How much exposure do you need (and how deep must the engagement be) before you have any good basis for judging your interest or potential, whether at the present moment or at some point in the future?

It strikes me that trying something can mean taking a chance on being over your head for a while — and that we often learn more in situations where we flounder than in situations where we skate by with little effort.

I have written before:

Doing science is something that is learned. It is not an intrinsic quality of a person. This means that you are not allowed to decide you are bad at it if you haven’t been immersed in learning it.

And here, we circle back to Berstein’s claim that a year of high school chemistry for his son will be a year of misery for the family. It almost sounds as if he thinks there is a sure-fire way to avoid any suffering connected to one’s offspring’s schooling. As the parent of a teenager, I doubt this is possible.

Parenting seems to necessitate helping your kid through all sorts of situations that involve some degree of suffering. Kids are being asked to develop new skills and habits of mind while they are simultaneously trying to figure out who the hell they want to be, establishing themselves as independent entities from their parents, and so forth. Kids are doing hard stuff, in school, and in life. We hope that they are gaining something from being brave enough and persistent enough to try hard things — even hard things they might not choose if left to their own devices. There may well be particular kinds of hard situations that challenge their brains with particular modes of thought that they’re not likely to encounter elsewhere until well into adulthood. Note that this might be a good argument for requiring that high school students study a foreign language or instrumental music, or that they participate in a team sport. I’m OK with that.

Finally, Bernstein addresses the “life is hard” rationale, namely, that the suffering generated by required courses is good preparation for the suffering of the workforce. Again, I think this is a weak rationale at best, but Bernstein’s response is even weaker:

I don’t know what you do for a living but I love what I do and rarely engage in work I don’t enjoy. If we’re going to pressure him, let’s do it in subjects where he can grow and put to use [sic] some day.

It is breathtaking that Bernstein seems not to recognize how privileged he is to have a paying job that he actually loves, given an economy in which plenty of people would willingly do work they can barely tolerate if it pays a decent wage and comes with benefits. And even then, it’s hard to imagine that anyone but the boss can really completely avoid all pieces of less-than-enjoyable work. There’s a reason why they call it “work” — and why people tend not to do it for free.

Moreover, there are some things that we do in our lives beyond our careers that might occasionally require work that is less than thoroughly enjoyable. For example, parenting a 15-year-old might not always be thoroughly enjoyable. Yet, it’s work that needs to be done.

Here, too, note that Bernstein seems to have complete confidence in his ability to discern which subjects will someday be of use to his son. The future, apparently, is crystal clear to him.

Moreover, Bernstein frames a year of required chemistry as claiming an unacceptably high opportunity cost:

When you force my son to take chemistry (and several other subjects, this is not only about chemistry), you are not allowing him that same time to take a public speaking course, which he could be really good at, or music, or political science, or creative writing, or HTML coding for websites.

Maybe he will learn something in chemistry somewhere along the way. But he will lose out on so many other more important opportunities, and so will our society, which will have deprived itself of his full contribution.

Set aside, for a moment, the fact that taking public speaking, or music, or political science, or so forth also comes with an opportunity cost (and that again, Bernstein seems to have reliable information from the future about which opportunity costs will lead to the best returns). I am deeply disturbed — and not a little freaked out — that a parent is commodifying his child’s school day, and choices in life more broadly, by framing them in terms of opportunity costs. Does Berstein see his son’s future as completely devoid of more opportunities? Is this kid’s full contribution to society contingent on being able to dodge redox reactions in high school? That strikes me as a pretty fragile trajectory for human flourishing.

A few years ago, I wrote about an element of what makes a college education valuable that is often overlooked and under-appreciated. I think it also applies to some degree to what our kids might get out of their high school educations:

You have your mind. You have the ability to think about things, to experience the world, to decide what matters to you and how you want to pursue it. You have your sense of curiousity and wonder when you encounter something new and unexpected, and your sense of satisfaction when you figure something out. You have the power to imagine ways the world could be different. You even have the ability (the responsibility?) to try to make the world different.

This is what I think a college education should give you: lots of hands-on experience using your mind so you know different ways you can think about things and you start to figure out what you care about.

Yes, you may encounter a lot of facts in your college education, but the real value of those facts is that they give you experience thinking about them in different ways. What you come away with is the ability to think about different facts out there in the “real world”. You get the ability to use the facts you encounter to draw your own conclusions rather than having to take someone else’s word for it. (The thing about those other people who will just tell you what you should think? Sometimes they lie.)

Thinking is hard. It requires a lot more effort than floating through the world on auto-pilot. But once you get started, it’s more addictive than potato chips. Thinking is fun. Even a little slice of a life of the mind (maybe reading a novel on the bus every morning) can counteract a fair bit of drudgery (like the job you’re riding that bus to get to). The joe-job is sometimes unavoidable; you’ve got to eat. But nourishing your mind gives you something better than just biological existence.

What, really, are we expecting kids to get out of school, and how are these things connected (or not) to the specifics of the curriculum? How much of what we’re hoping for is about to giving our kids particular job-ready skills? How much is about keeping future doors open for them (e.g., being able to major in chemistry without burning lots of time and money on remediation) should they choose, in the future, to go through them? How much has to do with a broader aim of human flourishing — and who gets to decide what that human flourishing should look like?

I worry what it says about us that parents (former philosophy majors, even!) are happy to parade their disdain for subjects they’ve decided, on the basis of who knows what, will be of absolutely no interest or use to their kids.

I also worry about what seems to be happening to childhood and adolescence in the U.S. if we cannot figure out how to help our kids meet the challenges of life — which sometimes include the challenges of the required curriculum — and if we cast the contexts in which kids are asked to try something they may not love, even something with which they may need to struggle, as essentially a (school) year of their lives that they are never getting back. Verily, this is the nature of time, flying like an arrow in one direction and so forth, but time that is not obviously productive is not thereby wasted. Kids need time to follow paths that may not lead to obvious destinations. They should have the chance to pursue lots of opportunities. For parents to cast them in terms of opportunity costs is not, in my view, the best way for them to cherish time with their kids.

Ada Lovelace Day book review: Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day. Last year, I shared my reflections on Ada herself. This year, I’d like to celebrate the day by pointing you to a book about another pioneering woman of science, Maria Mitchell.

Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science: An Astronomer among the American Romantics
by Renée Bergland
Boston: Beacon Press

What is it like to be a woman scientist? In a society where being a woman is somehow a distinct experience from being an ordinary human being, the answer to this question can be complicated. And, in a time and place where being a scientist, being a professional — indeed, even being American — was still something that was very much under construction, the complexities of the answer can add up to a biography of that time, that place, that swirl of intellectual and cultural ferment, as well as of that woman scientist.

The astronomer Maria Mitchell was not only a pioneering woman scientist in the early history of the United States, but she was one of the nation’s first professional scientists. Renée Bergland’s biography of Mitchell illuminates a confluence of circumstances that made it possible for Mitchell to make her scientific contributions — to be a scientist at all. At the same time, it tracks a retrograde cultural swing of which Mitchell herself was aware: a loss, during Mitchell’s lifetime, of educational and career opportunities for women in the sciences.

Maria Mitchell was the daughter of two people who were passionate about learning, and about each other. Her mother, Lydia Coleman Mitchell, worked at both of Nantucket’s lending libraries in order to avail herself of their collections. Her father, William Mitchell, turned down a spot as a student at Harvard — which Lydia, as a woman, was barred from attending — to stay on Nantucket and make a life with Lydia. Maria was born in 1818, the third child of ten (nine of whom survived to adulthood) in a family that nurtured its daughters as well as its sons and where a near constant scarcity of resources prompted both hard work and ingenuity.

William Mitchell was one of the Nantucket men who didn’t go to sea on a whaling ship, working instead on the island in a variety of capacities, including astronomer. His astronomical knowledge was welcomed by the community in public lectures (since youth who planned to go to sea would benefit from an understanding of astronomy if they wanted to be able to navigate by the stars), and he used his expertise to calibrate the chronometers ship captains used to track their longitude while at sea.

Since he was not off at sea, William was there with Lydia overseeing the education of the Mitchell children, much of it taking place in the Mitchell home. Nantucket did not establish a public school until 1827; when it did, its first principal was William Mitchell. Maria attended the public school for the few years her father was principal, then followed him to the private school he founded on the island. William’s astronomical work, conducted at home, was part of Maria’s education, and by the time she was 11 years old, she was acting as his assistant in the work. As it was not long before Maria’s mathematical abilities and training (most of it self-taught) soon exceeded her father’s, this was a beneficial relationship on both sides.

Maria herself did some teaching of the island’s children. Later she ran the Nantucket Atheneum, a cross between a community library and a center of culture. All the while, she continued to assist her father with astronomical observations and provided the computational power that drove their collaboration. She made nightly use of the rooftop observatory at the Pacific Bank (where the Mitchell family lived when William took a post there), and one evening in 1847, Maria’s sweeps of the heavens with her telescope revealed a streak in the sky that she recognized as a new comet.

The announcement of the comet beyond the Mitchell family gives us a glimpse into just what was at stake in such a discovery. Maria herself was inclined towards modesty, some might argue pathologically so. William, however, insisted that the news must be shared, and contacted the astronomers at Harvard he knew owing to his own work. As Bergland describes it:

When Mitchell discovered the comet and her father reported it to the Bonds at Harvard [William Bonds was the director of the Harvard Observatory, his son George his assistant], the college president at the time, Edward Everett, saw an opening: Mitchell was a remarkably appealing woman whose talent and modesty were equally indisputable. She could never be accused of being a status seeker. But if Everett could convince the Danish government [which was offering a medal to the discoverer of a new comet] that reporting her discovery to the Harvard Observatory was the equivalent of reporting the discovery to the British Royal Observatory or the Danish Royal Observatory, the Harvard Observatory would gain the status of an international astronomical authority.

Maria was something of a pawn here. She was proud of her discovery, but her intense shyness made her reluctant to publicize it. Yet that shyness was exactly what made her so useful to President Everett. Her friend George Bond had also discovered comets, but he’d been unsuccessful at arguing on his own behalf against the authorities of Europe. Since Bond was directly affiliated with the Harvard College Observatory, Harvard’s hands were tied; Everett had never even tried to defend Bond’s claims. But by framing Mitchell as something of a damsel in distress, Everett could bring his diplomatic skills to bear to establish the precedent that Harvard’s observatory was as reliable as the British Royal Observatory at Greenwich. (p. 67)

There was more than just a (potential) scientific priority battle here (as other astronomers had observed this comet within a few days of Maria Mitchell’s observation of it), there was a battle for institutional credibility for Harvard and for international credibility for the United States as a nation that could produce both important science and serious scientists. Thus, “Miss Mitchell’s Comet” took on a larger significance. While Harvard at the time would have had no use for a woman student, nor for a woman professor, they found it useful to recognize Maria Mitchell as a legitimate astronomer, since doing so advanced their broader interests.

Maria Mitchell’s claim to priority for the comet (one that turned out to have an unusual orbit that was tricky to calculate) was recognized. Besides the Danish medal, this recognition got her a job. In 1849, she was hired by the United States Nautical Almanac as the “computer of Venus”, making her one of the country’s very first professional astronomers.

Her fame as an astronomer also opened doors for her (including doors to observatories) as she left Nantucket in 1857 to tour Europe. The trip was one she hoped would give her a good sense of where scientific research was headed. As it turned out, it also gave her a sense of herself as an American, a scientist, and a woman moving in a very male milieu. Maria Mitchell was horrified to encounter neglected telescopes and rules that banned women from even setting foot within certain university facilities. She rubbed shoulders with famous scientists, including one Charles Babbage and Mary Somerville, the woman William Whewell invented the word “scientist” to describe:

When Whewell groped for words and finally coined “scientist” to describe her, the issue was not primarily gender, but rather the newness of Somerville’s endeavor — her attempt to connect all the physical sciences to one another. …

Another, even more important reason that Whewell … felt the need for a new term was that a new professional identity was developing. Those who studied the material world were beginning to distinguish themselves from philosophers, whose provinces were more metaphysical than physical. But the first steps of this separation had been quite insulated from each other: chemists, mathematicians, astronomers, and the soon-to-be-named physicists did not necessarily see themselves as sharing an identity or as working at a common endeavor. Somerville’s treatise On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences was instrumental in showing the various investigators that their work was connected — they were all practitioners of science.

Although the development of the word “scientist” related more to the philosophical point (argued by Somerville) that the sciences could be unified than it did to gender, “scientist” did gradually replace the older formulation, “man of science.” Gender also entered in, Whewell thought, because as a woman, Somerville was better equipped to see connection than a man. … Whewell argued that Somerville’s womanly perspective enhanced rather than obscured her vision. (pp. 146-147)

In Somerville, Mitchell found a woman who was a fellow pioneer on something of a new frontier in terms of how doing science was perceived. Though the time Mitchell spent with Somerville was brief, the relationship involved real mentoring:

Somerville talked to her about substantive scientific questions as none of the British scientists had done; Mitchell first learned about the works of the physicist James Prescott Joule in Florence [where she met Somerville], despite having spent months in scientific circles in England, where Joule lived and worked. Somerville took Mitchell seriously as an intellect, and wanted to share her wide-ranging knowledge and encourage Mitchell in her own endeavors. She made her affection for Mitchell clear, and she offered the support and encouragement the younger scientist needed. Best of all, Mitchell liked her. She was charming and kind, someone for Mitchell to emulate in every way. (p. 151)

Somerville was not just a role model for Mitchell. The reciprocal nature of their relationship made her a true mentor for Mitchell, someone whose faith in Mitchell’s capabilities helped Mitchell herself to understand what she might accomplish. This relationship launched Mitchell towards greater engagement with the public when she returned to the U.S.

Maria Mitchell broke more ground when she was hired by the newly formed Vassar College (a women’s college) as a professor of astronomy. While she was first interviewed for the position in 1862, the trustees were locked in debate over whether a woman could properly be a professor at the college, and Mitchell was not actually appointed until 1865. Her appointment included an observatory where Mitchell conducted research, taught, and lived. At Vassar, she broke with the authoritarian, lecture-style instruction common in other departments. Instead, she engaged her students in hands-on, active learning, challenged them to challenge her, and involved them in astronomical research. And, when it became clear that there was not enough time in a day to fully meet the competing demands of teaching and research (plus other professional duties and her duties to her family), Mitchell recorded a resolution in her notebook:

RESOLVED: In case of my outliving father and being in good health, to give my efforts to the intellectual culture of women, without regard to salary. (p. 203)

Such a commitment was vital to Maria Mitchell, especially as, during her time at Vassar, she was aware of a societal shift that was narrowing opportunities for women to participate in the sciences or in intellectual pursuits, in the realms of both education and professions. Pioneer though she was, she saw her female students being offered less by the world than she was, and it made her sad and angry.

Renée Bergland’s biography of Maria Mitchell lays out the complexities at work in Mitchell’s family environment, in the culturally rich yet geographically isolated Nantucket island, in the young United States, and in the broader international community of scientific thinkers and researchers. The factors that play a role in a person’s educational and intellectual trajectory are fascinating to me, in part because so many of them seem like they’re just a matter of chance. How important was it to Maria Mitchell’s success that she grew up in Nantucket, when she did, with the parents that she had? If she had grown up in Ohio or Europe, if she had been born a few decades earlier or later, if her parents had been less enthusiastic about education, is there any way she would have become an astronomer? How much of the early recognition of Mitchell’s work was connected to the struggle of the U.S. as a relatively new country to establish itself in the international community of science? (Does it even make sense to think of an international community of science in the mid-nineteenth century? Was it less about having American scientists accepted into such a community and more about national bragging rights? What might be the current state of the U.S. scientifically if other opportunities to establish national prowess had been pursued instead?)

Especially gripping are the questions about the proper role of females in scientific pursuits, and how what was “proper” seemed contingent upon external factors, including the availability (or not) of men for scientific labors during the American Civil War. I was surprised, reading this book, to discover that science and mathematics were considered more appropriate pursuits for girls (while philosophy and classical languages were better suited to boys) when Maria Mitchell was young. (How, in light of this history, do so many people get away with insinuating that females lack the intrinsic aptitude for science and math?) The stereotype in Mitchell’s youth that sciences were appropriate pursuits for girls seems to have been based on a certain kind of essentialism about what girls are like, as well as what I would identify as a misunderstanding about how the sciences operate and what kind of picture of the world they can be counted on to deliver. Mitchell, as much as anyone, seemed to be pushing her astronomical researches in a direction very different from the “safe” science people expected — yet in her writings, she also makes claims about women that could be read as essentialist, too. It’s hard to know whether these were these rhetorical moves, or whether Mitchell really bought into there being deep, fundamental differences between the sexes. This makes her story more complicated — and more compelling — than a straightforward narrative of a heroic scientist and professor battling injustice.

Indeed, there are moments here where I wanted to grab Maria Mitchell by the shoulders and shake her, as when she negotiated a lower salary for herself at Vassar than she was offered, even though she foresaw that it would lead to unfairly low salaries of the women faculty who followed her. Was her rejection of the higher salary just a matter of being honest to a fault about her limited teaching experience and her wavering self-confidence? Was she instead worried that accepting the higher salary might give the trustees an excuse not to take on the college’s first woman professor? Was opening the doors to other women in the professorate a more pressing duty than ensuring they would get the same respect — or at least, the same pay — as their male counterparts?

Given the seriousness with which Mitchell approached the task of increasing educational and professional opportunities for women, I can’t help but wondering how many of her choices were driven by a sense of duty. On balance, did Mitchell live the life she wanted to live, or the life she thought she ought to live to make things better? (Would she have drawn such a distinction herself?)

Some of these questions are connected to the various other strands of this rich biography. For example, Bergland does quite a lot to explore Maria Mitchell’s Quaker background, her own inclination to part company with the Society of Friends on certain matters of religious belief, the influence of her cultural Quakerism on and off Nantucket island, even how her plain Quaker dress made her an exotic and an object of curiosity during her travels through Europe at a time when the U.S. was arguably a developing country.

Bergland’s book is a captivating read that will be of interest to anyone curious about the development of educational institutions and professional communities, about the ways political and societal forces pull at the life of the mind, or about the ways people come to steer their interactions in many different circles to achieve what they think must be achieved.

An earlier version of this review was first published here.

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Want to help kids in a high poverty high school get outside and really experience astronomy? Please consider supporting “Keep Looking Up”, a DonorsChoose project aimed at purchasing a telescope for a brand new astronomy class in Chouteau, OK. Even a few dollars can make a difference.

Kicking off DonorsChoose Science Bloggers for Students 2012.

Since 2006, science bloggers have been working with and our readers to help public school students and teachers get the resources they need to make learning come alive. Is there an origin story for the annual Science Bloggers for Students drive? As a matter of fact*, there is:

Science Bloggers for Students Origin Story

If you’re reading blogs in this neighborhood of the blogosphere, chances are you care about science, or education, or both. Probably you’re the kind of person who thinks that solid — and engaging — math and science education is an important resource for kids to have as they hurtle into the future and face the challenges of our modern world.

It’s a resource that’s getting squeezed by tight public school budgets. But we have the opportunity to do something small that can have an immediate impact.

This year, from October 15 through November 5, a number of science bloggers, whether networked, loosely affiliated, or proudly independent, will be teaming up with DonorsChoose in Science Bloggers for Students, a philanthropic throwdown for public schools.

DonorsChoose is a site where public school teachers from around the U.S. submit requests for specific needs in their classrooms — from books to science kits, overhead projectors to notebook paper, computer software to field trips — that they can’t meet with the funds they get from their schools (or from donations from their students’ families). Then donors choose which projects they’d like to fund and then kick in the money, whether it’s a little or a lot, to help a proposal become a reality.

Over the last several years, bloggers have rallied their readers to contribute what they can to help fund classroom proposals through DonorsChoose, especially proposals for projects around math and science, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, funding hundreds of classroom projects, and impacting thousands of students.

Which is great. But there are a whole lot of classrooms out there that still need help.

To create the scientifically literate world we want to live in, let’s help give these kids — our future scientists, doctors, teachers, decision-makers, care-providers, and neighbors — the education they deserve.

One classroom project at a time, we can make things better for these kids. Joining forces with each other people, even small contributions can make a big difference.

The challenge this year runs October 15 through November 5. We’re overlapping with Earth Science Week (October 14-20, 2012) and National Chemistry Week (October 21-27, 2012), a nice chance for earth science and chemistry fans to add a little philanthropy to their celebrations. There are a bunch of Scientific American bloggers mounting challenges this year (check out some of their challenge pages on our leaderboard), as well as bloggers from other networks (which you can see represented on the challenge’s motherboard). And, since today is the official kick-off, there is plenty of time for other bloggers and their readers to enter the fray!

How It Works:

Follow the links above to your chosen blogger’s challenge on the DonorsChoose website.

Pick a project from the slate the blogger has selected. Or more than one project, if you just can’t choose. (Or, if you really can’t choose, just go with the “Give to the most urgent project” option at the top of the page.)


(If you’re the loyal reader of multiple participating blogs and you don’t want to play favorites, you can, of course, donate to multiple challenges! But you’re also allowed to play favorites.)

Sit back and watch the challenges inch towards their goals, and check the leaderboards to see how many students will be impacted by your generosity.

Even if you can’t make a donation, you can still help!

Spread the word about these challenges using web 2.0 social media modalities. Link your favorite blogger’s challenge page on your MySpace page, or put up a link on Facebook, or FriendFeed, or LiveJournal (or Friendster, or Xanga, or …). Tweet about it on Twitter (with the #scibloggers4students hashtag). Share it on Google +. Sharing your enthusiasm for this cause may inspire some of your contacts who do have a little money to get involved and give.

Here’s the permalink to my giving page.

Thanks in advance for your generosity.

*It’s possible the origin story presented here is not entirely factual, but it sure is compelling! Also, it was created with less than 10% child labor!