I have to admit, I feel a little dirty right now. Because I’ve just spent two days dealing with everything that’s accumulated for a few weeks, before hunkering down to finish a grant before an upcoming deadline.
And as I settle in to work, domestic terrorists have seized the US Capitol in a coup attempt. Lawmakers have fled for safety, the building is being looted, and much of the police are in cahoots with the terrorists. And the President just released a video fomenting his militia, saying how he loves the terrorists, and claiming that when he lost the election, it was fraudulent and stolen from him.
I feel bad for even thinking about work. But then, I really do have to work. This grant has a deadline, and I don’t know if NSF is going to extend it because of terrorism? And I also feel bad for writing about this.
Science and religion are two different ways of understanding and interacting with the world, each of which holds incredible power to change lives and influence the course of history. They are often understood to be in complete opposition to each other—and nowhere does this dichotomy play out more clearly than in contemporary US politics. Religious leaders oppose policies based on scientific consensus regarding women’s health, teaching evolution, and, most recently, controlling the spread of COVID-19.
The need for scientists to communicate effectively outside their fields has never been more important—and has never seemed more hopeless. How can we (scientists) convince them (religious people) to listen to the facts?
When I was in grad school, down the third floor hallway at the other end of Ramaley Hall, was the office of a professor who did a lot of undergraduate advising. He had a sign posted on his office door:
I hadn’t heard this particular phrase before.
Since I saw this sign in 1994, I’ve walked past a lot of offices, and I’ve seen this sign plenty of times. Maybe it’s on a door at your own institution. I also saw it last week in a posting on a higher education group in Facebook. I’ve worked in a place that embraces this kind of ethos. Earlier in my career, in a bout of Stockholm syndrome, I might even have said this myself.
Nowadays, when I see one of these signs, I identify it as a red flag, and mentally translate it as: “Inside this door resides a person who doesn’t care.”
Has more than a month passed since I’ve done a rec reads post? My gosh. Which in 2020 time, is, like, 27 years? This is a relatively condensed list of things I’ve bookmarked since the last one. And there are no takes on the election. (Though if you do find a 10,000 word insider’s view of exactly how the Four Seasons Total Landscaping thing went down, because oh man, this will be such a hilarious and pathetic story, please let me know? Because I don’t want to miss that.)
Over the last few weeks, science twitter has been…let’s say “discussing”, the place of religious faith and spiritualism in the scientific community and society in general. The source of the argument is a simple, but often aggressive assertion that religion is antithetical to science, presented as a binary choice: either you are an intelligent, free-thinking individual who accepts only that which can be empirically tested and validated, or you are a superstitious moron who mindlessly believes the dusty words of ancient charlatans. For many this will sound all too familiar, as it is frequently trotted out by a specific brand of atheists on Twitter, Reddit, and some of the seedier corners of the web.
This morning, in the midst of all this election fear, I got to liberate my brain for a bit by participating in a Q&A workshop run by the Genetics Society of America on PUI careers. There were a lot of folks there, and it was brimming with questions, it felt like we could have gone on for many hours more.
So, I thought, for all y’all, I could set up this post where you could ask Q&A in the comments, and I will answer them! And, of course, the diverse readership here could also answer as well! Because obviously multiple perspectives based on different experiences are important.
It was kind of exciting. Also, it was very imposter syndrome-y.
Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I wrote the book that I wish I was handed when I started teaching in grad school, and that I could reference as I became an instructor of record.
What’s on your syllabus for the first week of November? If you’re teaching in the US, I don’t know if you had the election schedule on your radar when you put together your schedule at the start of the semester, but if you didn’t, it would be kind to your students to take this into account.
Over thirty years of education research has revealed how to effectively communicate evolution to religious individuals. If I could boil down that research into one sentence it would be this: Highlighting potential compatibility between religion and evolution and de-emphasizing conflict is the best way to increase acceptance of evolution. Here are concrete steps, backed by research literature, for how to have productive discussions about religion and evolution both in the classroom and with the public.
1) Don’t assume an individual’s religious beliefs are in conflict with evolution. Unless someone believes in the literal separate creation of species by a God/god(s), their religious beliefs do not have to be in conflict with evolution. Because science is bound to the natural world and cannot prove or disprove the existence of a God/god(s), there are plenty of ways individuals reconcile their religious beliefs with evolution. Further, when we insist that evolution and religion are fundamentally incompatible it only creates more rejection of evolution. In my most recent study, 35% of strongly religious individuals thought that in order to fully accept evolution, they would have to be an atheist. Unsurprisingly, these individuals were the ones that reported accepting evolution the least.
It feels weird to just write a blog post. I’d just like to say* that I realize things are entirely not normal, and what makes it even more abnormal is how so many of us are expected go about our business as if things were normal.
The last time I was a student taking a full set of classes on the semester system, I was a high school senior. Where I went to college, a full course load was only three classes at a time. Even though my job is to (sometimes) teach courses on the semester system, it’s nothing I’ve experienced as an undergraduate.
A full semester course load is considered to be 15 units. Without any labs involved, that’s five three-unit courses. Holy crap, that’s a lot. I don’t mean that it’s a lot of work, per se, but it’s a lot to think about at the same time. Imagine taking a class in cell biology, one in sculpture, another one in Latin American Literature, and another in physics. And having to wrap your head around all of these all in the span of a few days. That’s a lot of cognitive whiplash! (And that’s only four courses I listed!)
Is this really the way we should be doing things? Is college best designed so that students have their attention divided so much?
For a while, I have been struggling with the concept of hope. Our reality has been tackled so hard with tragic events (COVID-19, immigration irregularities and insecurity, climate change, discrimination, and more) that talking about hope felt ironic to me at some point. Moreover, I hardly find answers to the question “how to be hopeful without being naïve and misinformed?”. Although I comprehend that cynicism (1) could be a mechanism to defend ourselves from general misinformation and fears, I tend to criticize cynics most of the time because I do not feel that these postures help move us forward. I also criticize naivety heavily and believing that things will work out just because, especially when it comes from people with easy access to information (2). Like Maria Popova said once: “…cynicism is both resignation’s symptom and a futile self-protection mechanism against it. Blindly believing that everything will work out just fine also produces resignation, for we have no motive to apply ourselves toward making things better.”
So…how can I be hopeful during one of the worst crises that we have faced as a world? How can we be hopeful if there is so much pain? How can we, with our science, provide more hope?
Today, the Ecological Society of America is dropping its ballot for a new round of seats on the Governing Board. I’m hoping to serve the society as the VP for Education and Human Resources. If elected, I’ll begin a 3-year term in summer 2021.
As developed nations are on their way to returning to normal, we in the United States are in this pandemic for the long haul. January 2021 is the earliest that our government will even possibly start to do anything about the situation, and I’m not sanguine about the probability of a legitimate election outcome in what’s left of my country. That means it’s on us to figure out how to do science even under these conditions. Because as scientists, we need to keep doing science, now more than ever.
When I returned from sabbatical three years ago, I held off on bringing new students into my lab, other than doing some short group field projects. I had a bunch of reasons* to not take new students on.
My plan was to ramp back up this year. And I still I think it’s time to for me to get some students back into my lab. This sounds fun!
Now that many of us know what an online conference is like, it appears there’s increased demand for more of then. I would presume that, as societies get more experience running these conferences, they’ll become even more engaging and more accessible.
Here’s an idea for discussion: What do you think about alternating online and in-person conferences?
In the past couple years, we have made progress in dropping the GRE, and now the pandemic has come through with a huge assist. Maybe that’s the final blow for the GRE, as programs are now dropping it permanently. Which means that people who cared about the GRE are now placing higher importance on other pieces of applications, including recommendation letters.
Which leads me to ask: Are recommendation letters a good thing or a bad thing? Of course, I don’t think this is a binary matter and there’s a lot of nuance involved here.
I have heard a variety of concerns about recommendation letters in the graduate admissions process, and I think it would be foolhardy for us to think that we’ve made a big amount of progress by getting rid of the GRE. The problem with the GRE is that it doesn’t reflect ability, research potential, or value to the academic community, as it’s more tied to wealth, access to resources, and the accumulation of cultural and social capital. You could say the same thing about recommendation letters, too.
Let me illustrate the problem with recommendation letters with a little, and wholly true, story.
4. Although NSF will continue to fund outstanding Graduate Research Fellowships in all areas of science and engineering supported by NSF, in FY2021, GRFP will emphasize three high priority research areas in alignment with NSF goals. These areas are Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Information Science, and Computationally Intensive Research. Applications are encouraged in all disciplines supported by NSF that incorporate these high priority research areas.
For a lot of us, this Fall will be our first experience teaching fully online. This shouldn’t be like emergency teaching in the Spring. We can be ready.
I think it’s unfair to students if, yet again, we bumble through online teaching. What can do we do to make sure that our courses are designed to engage students and support their learning?
What works in a classroom often doesn’t work online, and what works online often doesn’t work well in a classroom. A lot of us will be stretching our skill set as instructors. At the very least, we can learn what is supposed to work online as we design our classes.
Not everything about 2020 is horrible: We’re running EEB Mentor Match again! More than ever this year, undergraduates from under-resourced institutions need guidance to help them into graduate school. Undergraduates in minoritized groups can use a boost from those of us who have cracked the code to get into grad school and get funded.
We are pairing up students seeking support for fellowship and grad school applications with more experienced scientists who have agreed to give support and advice throughout the process. If you’re looking for a mentor, or you’d like to volunteer to be a mentor, please sign up!