A thought for those who are mindful about their legacy in their discipline.

It is possible that, once you shuffle off this mortal coil, people will remember you for your scholarly contributions to your field.

However, it is also possible that they will remember you for your consistently inappropriate behavior, your thoroughgoing lack of respect for the boundaries of the students you were supposed to be nurturing rather than exploiting.

It is possible that, in the fullness of time, the people in your discipline who were given the academic equivalent of the “Grandpa is just that way” excuse for your behavior will come to the conclusion that there was no good excuse for your behavior, that, rather than speaking no ill of the dead, they will describe your conduct for what it was.

As well, they may start to recognize the complicity of the other “grown-ups” in their field who offered the “Grandpa is just that way” excuse for what it was.

If some of those enablers, still living, are mindful about their legacy within their discipline, they might want to reflect on that and make some amends before they, too, go to the great beyond.

Figuring out why something makes me cranky.

For some time I have been aware of my own discomfort in situations where I’m talking about certain challenges for girls and women in their educational trajectory, or the difficulty of the academic job market, or the challenges of the tenure track.

Sometimes I’ll note, in passing, my own good fortune in navigating the difficult terrain. Sometimes I won’t. Yet, reliably, someone will chime in with something along the lines of:

“Yeah, it’s hard, but the best and the brightest, like you, will survive the rigors.”

This kind of comment makes me extremely grumpy.

And I know, usually, it’s offered as a compliment. Frequently, I think, it’s offered to counteract my residual impostor complex, to remind me that I do work very hard, and that the work I do actually has value by any reasonable metric of assessment — in other words, that my talents, skills, effort, and determination have made some causal contribution to my successes.

But I know plenty of people with talents, skills, effort, and determination comparable to mine — maybe even surpassing mine — who haven’t been as lucky. I’m not inclined to think that for every single one of them — or even for most of them — that there’s a plausible causal story about some additional thing they could have done that would have made the difference.

Assuming there is amounts to assuming that our systems “work” to sort out the meritorious from the rest. That is a pretty serious assumption hanging out there with pretty scanty empirical backing.

And this morning I finally figured out how to articulate why I get cranky about the personal accolades and affirmations offered in response to my discussions of challenging systems and environments: they shift the discussion back to the level of individuals and individual actions, and away from the level of systems.

I guess if you think the systems are just fine, there’s not much point in examining them or thinking about ways they could be different.

But the evidence suggests to me that many of our systems are not just fine. When that’s what I’m trying to talk about, please don’t change the subject.

Musing about boycotts (or, the challenges of effectively living your values without being overwhelmed).

This summer it seems like boycotts are on a lot of people’s minds.

In the aftermath of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin, Stevie Wonder announced that he won’t perform in Florida until its Stand Your Ground laws are repealed.

Author John Scalzi announced that he will no longer be a participant, panelist, or guest of honor at any convention without a harassment policy. But he also announced that he’s disinclined to join in a boycott of the Ender’s Game movie, despite the fact that he thinks the views of Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card (who is also a producer of the movie) on same-sex marriage and on LGBT folks more generally are “completely, totally and egregiously wrong.”

There is, in the field of philosophy, an ongoing Gendered Conference Campaign asking people to decline to participate in conferences all of whose announced speakers are male.

Individual academics have also engaged in boycotts of specific journals and publishers on account of their objections to their editorial practices or to the other kinds of business in which they engage. University libraries have also announced plans to boycott publishers whose institutional licensing agreements they felt approached extortion.

There’s a lot of back and forth in almost all these instances (and in the many others not mentioned here) about whether boycotts are an effective way to communicate your objection to the target of the boycott, whether they hurt others who really aren’t responsible for the thing you object to, even whether organizing or engaging in a boycott is a display of intolerance.

It’s a complicated tangle of things to worry about, at least if you’re a person who wants to live something approaching an ethically consistent life.

If you value X, you don’t want to give material support to a person or organization actively working against X. If you view Y as a great harm, you don’t want to have your consumer choices reinforce a system that perpetrates or enables Y. But chains of cause and effect can be complicated, and sometimes what people or organizations are working for or against can be obscure.

Sometimes boycotts have been effective, either leading organizations to change their practices of their own volition or bringing political pressure upon them to do so. In other cases, boycotts seem to have little effect beyond giving their participants something about which to feel themselves superior.

My own personal consumer choices are pretty motley.

There are pizza franchises that will never get my business (even if they were, some day, to make a palatable product) on account of the political donations of their founder. There are big-box stores whose threshold I will not cross (and have not since … the 1980s, I think?) owing to their abusive labor practices. In my immediate neighborhood, there are two gas stations I feel passable comfortable using; the others are off the table owing to the corporate owners’ involvement with environmental disasters, human rights violations, and lobbying against reasonable clean air standards in my state.

But I still use computer hardware from a company that I feel has a pretty lousy concept of corporate social responsibility, one that has gone to great lengths to avoid paying its fair share of taxes in states like California. I still buy chocolate, despite the environmental harms and labor atrocities involved in its production. (The fact that I don’t buy Hershey’s chocolate probably does’t get me off the hook.) And there are plenty of goods I buy from any number of corporations where I have no clear idea what the production of those goods entailed, nor what sorts of actions those corporations are engaged in or are supporting with the proceeds of their business. I’m making choices in a condition of radically incomplete information, and even what I do know indicates that some of my choices are quite a bit less than optimal.

It’s not obvious to me that my individual consumer choices make a whit of difference to large multinational corporations. They probably are more hassle for me than for the businesses I’m patronizing (although honestly, in a world where there are fewer places I’m comfortable buying gas, my response is to drive less whenever possible — and that’s probably a good effect).

I don’t believe we’re going to save the world with our consumer choices. I’m not entirely comfortable equating money with speech.

Then again, until I’ve entered into an agreement to secure a good or service, I don’t believe anyone has a right to my money.* Thus, ethical issues seem like as good a reason as any to opt out of buying a particular product or patronizing a particular business.

If you’re going to tell me it’s wrong to opt out of buying tickets to see “Ender’s Game,” you’re going to need to give me a positive argument.

Beyond that, despite how thoroughly we are cast as creatures of consumption (usually by someone who wants to sell us something), I suspect that the real action in the marketplace of ideas takes place at some remove from the exchange of currency for goods and services. Some of it is happening where people are interacting and actually exchanging ideas and opinions.

And here, the choices get a lot trickier for me than they do when I’m deciding where to get my groceries or gas.

For example, there are people with whom I interact because our kids are involved in some of the same activities. I am aware that some of these people belong to organizations whose aims I think are not good — to organizations that see some people as less than fully human, and that put lots of money into political campaigns to restrict their rights.

If these people were businesses, I’d drive right by them. But they are parents of my kids’ peers — of their friends.

Usually we don’t talk directly at all about the political divides. It’s possible (although I haven’t taken steps to find out) that they are opposing some of these organizations from the inside; I’m related to some people who do that, and I think they’re fighting the good fight.

I’m not engaging in a fight. How I’m playing it right now is that I’m trying to be someone who interacts with these folks, someone who interacts with these kids, someone who they know to be caring, trying to be a help …

… so that by the time they connect the dots and notice that I fit in one of the groups targeted by their organization (or that people I care about with the same regard I show to them are so targeted by their organizations), they’re going to have to reevaluate whether they stand behind what their organizations are doing.

This all depends on the assumption that growing to care about actual people in their lives can make a difference to the organizations and activities they support. It turns on the assumption that getting to know the “other” makes it harder to treat the issues as abstractions. It recognizes that people are complicated — that almost all of us have contradictory views and commitments in our heads, and that most of us haven’t put lots of effort into noticing this or trying to sort out which views or commitments we really endorse.

And it is helped by the fact that, so far, these folks I know haven’t displayed values or views so repellent that I give up engagement with them as a lost cause. That could still happen. I’m hopeful that it won’t, but I’m watchful.

But honestly, the complications of personal entanglements in a marketplace of ideas make decisions about how ethically to spend one’s money look a lot more straightforward. That seems like a weird outcome.

*Except the state (at the relevant level), since I partake of the goods the state offers, and thus have an obligation to pay my share to support those goods.

Ponderable: disciplinary specific data about questions at professional conferences.

This week I’m attending the annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association in San Francisco. There are lots of interesting talks on the program, but I find myself noticing some of the habits of philosophers that are on display in the question-and-answer periods at the end of the talks.

For example, philosophers seem to have a hard time asking a concise question. It’s not obvious that this is always a problem — providing a bit of context with the question can make it easier to get an answer to the question one is trying to ask — but sometimes the queries come with so much background that it’s hard to identify the actual question. And sometimes it’s just that the questioners are just trying to ask too many things at once. (To be fair, some philosophers recognize this, including one this morning who started, “I have two questions, but I’ll try to reduce them to a single one …”) Then too there are the questioners disinclined to yield the floor, persisting with follow-up queries even as the session chair is indicating that they should shut up so other people can get their questions answered.

My impression is that some of these behaviors are generational (or maybe related to status within the professional community), but others strike me as behaviors characteristic of philosophers.

Are there patterns of engagement in professional meeting Q&A that you take to be distinctive of your discipline? Any behaviors you think are dying out, or surging forth? And, if you’re one of those interdisciplinary creatures, are there exotic Q&A behaviors you notice when you go to professional meetings with folks from the other side of a disciplinary fence?

(I’m now thinking I might start collecting some more precise data on questions for the remainder of the meeting, to see how measurements square with my impressions.)

In which Argentine tango puts a valuable skill in my parenting toolbox.

The skill in question is creeping across floorboards silently. (It’s all about how you shift your weight as you move your feet, and that’s something about which my tango teacher was a little bit obsessive.)

Being able to creep across floorboards silently is the skill of mine which (I dearly hope) has finally convinced my eldest offspring that it is totally not worth it to sneak onto social media or online games before the day’s homework has been completed. Because it is hard to fully enjoy that social media or gaming when your stealthy parent might appear behind you without warning. Which means maybe doing the homework first, efficiently, could allow one to enjoy being online without fear of detection and consequences.

In a perfect world, you’d think logic would be persuasive enough. Since the world isn’t perfect, I’ve made my peace with being a stealthy mother.

An ad in the sidebar that kind of bugs me.

Just now, on this blog, I noticed an ad for an “online reputation management service”. There are ads for services like these all over the place (including on the airwaves of the big San Francisco public radio station, although they don’t call them “ads” because public radio isn’t supposed to have ads).

Anyway, I hadn’t really given much thought to these businesses. I figured it was mostly for restaurants or similar kinds of clients trying to “accentuate” their good online reviews (while eliminating the negative ones, or at least pushing them down in the search results). Kind of slimy, but in a way I’ve come to expect from companies trying to attract me as a customer.

But I have come to learn lately that cheating scientists sanctioned by the ORI have been hiring online reputation managers to try to push the cyber-trails of their cheating out of sight. It’s even possible (although not conclusively established by any means) that especially vigorous online reputation managers for hire might be engaging in shenanigans to use false DMCA claims to literally eliminate negative information that the scientific community (and indeed, the larger public) has an interest in being able to access.

So, yeah. Everyone has bills to pay — people who work in online reputation management, people who had to leave science because they got caught cheating, blog networks like Scientopia. Commerce marches on. But that doesn’t mean I have to like all of what happens in the service of paying those bills.

#scio13 aftermath: some thoughts about the impostor syndrome.

I didn’t end up going to the Impostor Syndrome session at ScienceOnline 2013. I told myself this was because it would be more professionally useful to attend Life in the venn – What happens when you’re forced to wear many hats? since I have recently added a hat of my own (Director of my university’s Center for Ethics). But, if I’m honest with myself, it’s because I felt like too much of an impostor to contribute much of anything — even useful tweets — to the impostor syndrome session.

I have felt like an impostor since at least high school, and maybe before that.

I have known, since at least my second year of college, that the impostor syndrome was a real phenomenon. It was even the topic of my term paper in Psych 101. But knowing that the syndrome was a real thing, and that it involved a mismatch between one’s actual accomplishments and how accomplished one felt on the inside, didn’t make me feel like less of a fraud.

It probably goes without saying that I had a flare-up of the impostor syndrome in my first Ph.D. program. I had another flare-up in my second Ph.D. program (although I was maybe a little better at hiding my self-doubt). Going on the academic job market in philosophy made me feel like perhaps the biggest fraud of all … until I went up for tenure.

The frustrating thing about the impostor syndrome is that it makes it utterly impossible to tell whether your successes reflect any merit, or whether they are pure luck.

Whether the potential others see in you is real, and could somehow be converted to something of value (if only you manage not to blow it), or whether your only actual skill is talking a good game.

Whether piping up to share what feel like insights is reasonable, or whether you are just wasting people’s time.

I worry that what it might take to overcome my own impostor syndrome is an actual flight from reality. I know too many smart, accomplished people in my field who have not met with the recognition or success they deserve to believe we’re working within a pure meritocracy — which means it’s unreasonable for me to take my own success as a clear indicator of merit. I also know that past performance is not a guarantee of future returns — which means that even if I have done praiseworthy things in the past, I could blow it at any moment going forward.

And I also worry that maybe I don’t really have impostor syndrome, in which case, the reasonable conclusion, given how I feel a lot of the time, is that I actually am a fraud.

So, yeah, it’s one of those topics that feels very relevant, but is perhaps relevant enough that I’m not really in a good position to benefit from a discussion of it.

How’s that for a paradox?

* * * * *

Tweets from the Impostor Syndrome session have been Storified here.

Passing thoughts about the younger offspring’s interaction with popular music, in two scenes.

Scene 1, in the Free-Ride hoopty en route to a music lesson a few weeks ago:

[On the mix-CD in the CD player, a Todd Rundgren song begins to play.]

Younger offspring: Le Roy!

Dr. Free-Ride: Yup!

Younger offspring: The melody of this song is really catchy.

Dr. Free-Ride: I agree.

Younger offspring: But … what is he actually saying about women? I’m not sure the guy singing the song gets that women are people the same way he and his friend Le Roy are.

Dr. Free-Ride: No, I’m not sure he does either. It was the 1970s, but still.

Younger offspring: Some really catchy songs are problematic.

Dr. Free-Ride: You were bound to notice that sooner or later.

* * * * *

Scene 2, in the Free-Ride kitchen this morning:

Dr. Free-Ride: Hey, want to watch a video for a rap song about evolution?

Younger offspring: Is it about going to a club, drinking a lot, and hitting on people?

Dr. Free-Ride: Um, it’s about sexual selection.

Younger offspring: Are there bad words in it?

Dr. Free-Ride: No, I don’t think so.

Younger offspring: Musical genres have rules. Maybe it was different when you were young, but nowadays rap songs have to be about going to a club, drinking a lot, and hitting on people, or at least they have to have bad words.

Dr. Free-Ride: Hmmm.

An open letter to our county transit agency.

Dear county transit agency,

I appreciate that you run “school route” busses in our town to help students who live quite a distance away get to the junior high and high school. In these times of woefully inadequate school funding, when school district-run school busses are a misty watercolor memory, lots of kids depend on the school route county busses to get to and from school — including my kid.

I reckon someone at your agency appreciates that the school route busses present an outstanding opportunity to groom future generations to be enthusiastic mass-transit users. Before most of them have drivers licenses, you have a window to convince them that busses are a fast, reliable, and affordable alternative to cars. These kids have been raised as tree-huggers, so they’re receptive to this message. Heck, the car line of the damned in front of the junior high, every morning right before school and every afternoon right after school, is doing yeoman’s work to make that case for you.

Except, here’s the thing: you can only persuade these kids that mass-transit is the way to go if the school route bus actually comes when it’s supposed to before and after school rather than disappearing without a trace and leaving a whole lot of kids standing at the bus stops wondering if they will ever make it to school, or if they will ever make it home.

Honestly, for all of their typing with their thumbs and talking like LOLcats, these kids are smart enough to connect the damn dots.

With extreme irritation on behalf of my stressed out kid standing in the rain waiting for busses that never came on multiple occasions,

Dr. Free-Ride