I think I might be a successful nag


Has Small Pond Science helped increase broader awareness and respect for university scientists and students working outside the R1 environment?

I think, well, maybe, a little bit. Enough to keep me from closing shop. There are a lot of known unknowns, but I’ll focus on some known knowns. I know that there are several dozen junior scientists whose professional trajectories have, at least a little, been nudged or fortified or nourished. If I go by the principle that for every person who goes out of the way to contact me, there is a greater fraction out there that hasn’t, well, then, it’s totally more than worth it.

This site recently had its third blogiversary which I let pass unobserved. That’s a word, isn’t it? By the numbers, we’ve had 475 posts. By the end of this year we should have crossed the million visit threshold, and that’s without any post going viral, just a steady burn, one week to the next. Just because people are reading doesn’t necessarily mean real change is happening. How the heck do I assess that?

It’s not hard to assess the site’s effect on my own career: People outside my narrow discipline are more aware of my science, and a growing number are interested in what I have to say beyond the realm of ecology, social insects, and rainforests. Reputation is the currency in academia. By speaking out about science at poorly respected institutions, I’ve expanded my own niche. That’s pretty cool. It hasn’t been a small amount of work, but I’m not foolish enough to mistake it for merit.

Outside of myself, what changes have I seen? I’ve been using twitter as part and parcel of the site. Early on, I would see all kinds of stuff on twitter that were horrifyingly ignorant of the experience of scientists outside major research centers. All kinds of overgeneralizations, insults (unintended and otherwise), and false assumptions. (Most scientists are not on twitter, of course. I realize that.)  The standard one that I’d see is that folks would say “faculty position” but they really meant “R1 faculty position.” They’d say “professor” but they meant “R1 professor.” One time I got seriously R1splained about why I don’t belong in the research community. There are a bunch of people who openly assumed that people at regional state universities and SLACs just aren’t good researchers and don’t belong in the conversation. That we aren’t members of the community and that we don’t count. Early on, my goal for this site was merely to say that we exist.

Three years later, I haven’t changed the world. But at least among the realm of the few thousand people with whom I interact with on twitter, I just now realize there’s been a change. All of those things that people would say that got me mad, I don’t see anymore. If that change is real, then that suggests I’m a successful nag. I don’t get on twitter with the purpose of scanning it for things that unfairly diss non-R1 scientists, but if I see it, I’m not reluctant to chime in. When people made false assumptions and say condescending things, I pointed it out and shared my experience, working to stay as respectful but insistent that scientists like myself truly matter in the community. I’d like to think that people now don’t have those assumptions and nasty things in their heads. But if they do, then they’re not saying them as publicly. If I can minimize the marginalization of researchers in teaching-focused institutions out of the public sphere, I’ll call it a win. That’s a big “if,” of course.

I’m not sure how much of this change is my perception versus what really has changed, and I’m not sure how much of this is due to my persnickety annoying rabble-rousing and complaining. I’d like to think that if others see me as a serious academic, they also have that capacity to see it in all of their own colleagues at non-R1s. And are more likely to invite them for seminars, collaborations, editorial boards, and stuff like that. We’ve come a long way, baby.

I don’t intend to revisit navel-gazing on the relevance of the site until our 4th blogiversary, which will be beyond the midpoint of my glorious, glorious sabbatical, which starts in a few months.

3 thoughts on “I think I might be a successful nag

  1. I find your observation of R1 scientists dishing researchers at other kinds of institutions quite sad. Where do they think their graduate students and post docs end up (presumably well trained)? There are not enough openings in R1 institutions for all the young people it takes to run a science enterprise these days. Our college has some fantastic faculty who trained at R1 institutions and seen to be happy to have a job and the opportunity to continue their research, albeit with undergraduates in the lab, not grad students.
    I do remember my R1 research advisors telling me not to take the job I have had for 30 years at a small UG college. I asked them to support me with references, which they did. There were so few openings I was thrilled for a tenure track position. Fast forward 30 years and our young faculty are thrilled for a tenure track position at a small college and still get their research done!

  2. Terry, I appreciate your site and this post. My motivation for starting The Ecotone Exchange was because I heard and read over and over again in graduate school the need to communicate the science to the public–though I am not a PhD-level researcher, I intend to use my Master’s in Env. Communication to that end. I also always remember something I heard Ralph Nadar say about twenty years ago–that there is so much important work done in universities that never gets out to the general mainstream. I think blogs are a way for that to happen.

    I have also, in the few weeks I’ve been following, enjoyed your comments about academia. I teach English, and spent the first decade and a half in high schools. Then I moved up to community college. The issues are the same across the whole education system.

    I think if you’ve dispelled misinformation, you’ve made real change.


  3. However you measure success, you’re on the right track. It looks like your public engagement has expanded your own perspective, in addition to that of all the people who are read your work. As scientists, we’re all in a “small pond,” so thank you for broadening our audience!

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