Recommendations for making science inclusive, and how to talk about it with others

Standard

You’re reading Small Pond Science right now — but a lot of our colleagues don’t read anything resembling a blog. So, for them, I’ve just published a short peer-reviewed paper about how this site addresses a common theme: how to promote equity and inclusion, especially for students in minority-serving institutions.

Think of it as a blog post, but with a lot of useful references in peer-reviewed journals and with the bright and shiny veneer of legitimacy from journal that’s been in print for more than a century. And hopefully fewer typos. Continue reading

Using blogs for sharing negative results

Standard

I’ve now been blogging for a little over three years. I’m no longer a newbie, but clearly am not an old-timer. Nonetheless, I’ve seen the standard topics of the scientific “blogosphere” (for lack of a better word) get cycled through again, and again. These are topics that are often important to our community, dealing with equity, justice, accessibility, and leadership. That said, I feel like blogs can do more, and serve our own academic communities better. Continue reading

I think I might be a successful nag

Standard

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. Continue reading

Practicing what you preach (or rather teach)

Standard

I have been fairly absent from here over the last many months. I’ve wanted to write and even started a few posts but they never got completed. The clashing of personal (husband’s surgery) and work stresses (major grant applications that will allow me to continue my position in Sweden) this spring made for a hectic time. I never really regained my balance before summer started. And well, I’m a field ecologist at heart, so between fieldwork and vacation the weeks have flown by. The end result is that I’m out of the habit of writing regularly and I miss it.

As the fall approaches and regular schedules settle in, my plan is to practice what I’m about to teach. Continue reading

Academia and friendships

Standard

At one point I thought about writing a post about the difficulties that academia wreaks on friendships. All that moving about means picking up, making new friends and leaving behind the old. It is tough in many respects and it is easy to see the negatives of that part of the career. Check out #academicnomad for the joys and sorrows of traveling/moving so much. Needless to say the post slipped by and I never quite got around to writing it. Continue reading

Two years of Small Pond Science

Standard

Small Pond is exactly two years old. Here’s a reflection on how this site has affected me. Some might call this navel-gazing. I look into that navel infrequently, so after two years I might as well remove this lint.

It takes a few moments to set up a blog. I’m more sheepish about divulging how much time I’ve spent on Small Pond Science over the last two years. I try to give as much attention to this site as I would to a class that I’m teaching, no less and no more. Continue reading

Social media: what is it good for?

Standard

For better or worse, I am the only person in my department who engages regularly in social media. Blogging here, reading other blogs (and occasionally commenting), chatting on twitter…over the last year or so these have become regular activities for me. So for our informal seminar series, I decided to talk about using social media as a scientist. Continue reading

Maybe I am a writer after all

Standard

I’ve been head down, focusing on writing grants lately. These days I spend a good deal of my time writing and thinking about writing, which isn’t what I imagined life as a scientist to be.

When I was much younger, I wanted to be a writer. I read voraciously. Mainly fantasy novels and classics like Jane Austen and Lucy Maud Montgomery. I spent a lot of time out in the fields and woods around the places we lived and in my head in worlds far from my own. Being a writer sounded so romantic. But along the way that idea faded. Writing in my English classes was uninspiring and the one thing I didn’t do was write, which is of course what makes one a writer. I continued to read with my tastes broadening (but I still enjoy a good fantasy novel when I get the chance) but honestly I didn’t write that much and most of that was because I had to.

Fast-forward to my first undergraduate research project, I was working on sex-allocation in plants. The measurements came fairly easy (besides all the time they took) but once I had a complete and analyzed dataset, then came the writing. It was my first experience writing and rewriting and rewriting something. And then there was submitting it to a journal and rewriting again. I never had worked so hard at writing something but I definitely done so since then.

As my career in science has progressed, I’ve needed to take writing seriously. As an undergrad, I really had no idea how much writing was involved in most scientific fields. Unfamiliar with such things as peer-review, I was ignorant about the process between doing research and published papers.

These days I’ve published a modest number of papers but the stories behind them have really helped me grow as a writer. There was that paper that we decided to cut a significant number of words (I can’t remember the number but maybe a quarter of the paper) to try for a journal with a strict word limit (where it was rejected from). It meant looking at every single sentence to see if every word was truly necessary. The process was kind of fun and became a little like a game or puzzle. I’m still overly wordy at times but now I’m better at slashing in the later drafts. Then there was that time our paper kept getting rejected and we realized (read: my co-author because I didn’t even want to think about it anymore) that the entire introduction needed to be reframed. So we basically tossed the intro and discussion and started again. It was painful but ultimately what needed to be done. What was there before wasn’t bad writing but was setting up expectations that weren’t fulfilled by our data.

Through all of this and especially writing here, I realised that I became a writer with out even realizing it. My science has taught me more about the craft of writing than any of the English classes I took ever did (but to be fair I stopped taking these after first year of my undergraduate degree). I’m not sure if I’ll ever tackle a fiction story, and that is ok. I turned into a different kind of writer than my childhood self imagined. And I know there is a whole other craft of understanding how to construct a story, which is very different than writing a paper or a grant proposal or a blog post. I’m not arrogant enough to think my writing is a universal skill but if I did want to write a novel I now have a better idea of what that might take (writing and rewriting and rewriting and repeat).

There are lots of scientists who also write books for more general audiences suggesting that the transition from scientist to what most would consider a writer isn’t that farfetched. This Christmas I enjoyed the writing of one of my favourite people from my graduate school days, Harry Greene. “Tracks and Shadows” is a lovely, often poetic read about life as a field biologist, snakes and much more. And I haven’t picked it up yet but another Cornellian I knew has gone on to do science television and write “Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You”. It looks fun. These examples of scientists I know writing books also speak to the possibility of writing beyond scientific papers. And as the Anne Shirley books taught me, you should write what you know.

Maybe someday I’ll decide to write a book, but for now, back to those grants.

Putting faces to names: meeting fellow academics

Standard

I just got back from a tour of North America, including a stop to visit my family in Nova Scotia and a conference in California. It was a great trip and a reminder of how lucky I am these days. Not only did my daughter and I get spoiled by my parents but I also had the opportunity to meet and interact with many of the leaders and new up and coming researchers of my field*.  As we recover from jet lag and get back to the routine, I have a chance to reflect on my travels.

One of the benefits of traveling for conferences is, of course, the chance to meet people. Seeing talks on the forefront of everyone’s research is definitely good for learning and stimulating new ideas, but I often find the most valuable parts of any conference are the causal conversations you end up having. It can also be pretty interesting to put faces (and characters) to the names you know from the literature.

Although not unique to academia, you often ‘know’ people before meeting them through their work. I find that I don’t often have a particular preconceived picture of authors I read, but meeting someone in person or seeing them talk does change the way I interact with the literature to some extent. For one thing, the more people I meet, the more human the literature feels. I can put faces to author names and pictures to their study systems (if I’ve seen a talk). As a student, in some ways the primary literature felt so, well, scientific and perhaps a bit cold. These days, that is less of an issue and science feels much more like an endeavour that I belong to. However, as you become more apart of the community doing science, there is the potential for things to swing the other way. I’m probably more likely to notice a publication on a list if I’ve met the author. It is always nice to see people I went to grad school with pop up in journal alerts, for example. And although I try not to be biased by my impressions of a person when I read a paper, I’m only human after all. I wouldn’t say it stops me from appreciating good work (I hope!) but personal interactions do colour whether I would want to invite a person for a talk, for example. And interactions at conferences, etc. definitely influences who I want to work with. Of course, I’m more likely to collaborate with people I hit it off with then those I don’t. I wonder if that is also true for citations and the like. Are we more likely to read and cite people we’ve met? How about those we like? I’m not sure I want to know the answers to those questions and I certainly try not to let biases like that enter my work, but science is a human activity after all.

I think it is always interesting to meet/see people in person who you know from other means. In academics, that used to be meeting or seeing someone give a talk at a conference whose papers you’ve read. Maybe their papers are seminal to yours, and especially as a grad student, seeing people behind the work can be very eye opening. I once was at a famous ecologist’s talk at a big conference. The room was packed but it was one of the poorer talks I’d ever seen. The slides were directly transferred from papers and impossible to read. Pointing from the lectern to a screen meters away also did not help (‘as you can clearly see…’ was a memorable quote). A friend and I sat at the back trying to figure out the main tenets of the classic theory from this person because it was the keystone of the talk but never directly described (we were of course all expected to be familiar with it, I suppose). The experience taught me that great thinkers don’t necessarily make great presenters. But I’ve also seen wonderful talks by some big names too.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve gotten to see old friends and put faces to more names I’m familiar with. I also got a chance to hear from and meet people I might have never have known otherwise. And seeing what the grad students are up to is always interesting. Communicating science and hearing about people’s studies is part of what I find fun in this job.

Interestingly, this blog and twitter has also opened up my scientific community beyond the boarders of my research. So whereas before putting faces to names was all about meeting people I had read in the literature, this time it included a chance to meet up with Small Pond’s very only leader, Terry. We were lucky to overlap in the LA area for a day and were able to see each other face to face. I have to admit, it felt a bit like an academic version of on-line dating or something. I was nervous to meet. What if it was awkward? What if we didn’t like each other? I’d been having fun posting on this blog but if our in person interaction didn’t work I wasn’t sure what that would mean. I’m happy to report that we had a good time and a fruitful discussion about blogging, twitter and this new-to-me on-line community. I hope it is only the first of many meetings with those that I am getting to know through their blogs and tweets. I’m sure it will mean that I will also pop in on talks far removed from my research if we happen to be at the same conference in the future. I think that is a good thing.

*being a bit of a generalist, the conference was in one of my fields of interest, plant volatiles.

Why I write with my own name

Standard

This post was written in concert with four others on the same topic, which can be found at this link on Hope Jahren’s site.

When you click on “about,” you see my unveiled face and my real name. Some of my credibility – and the lack thereof – comes from who I am and what I have done. It’s self-evident that the identity of the messenger affects how the message is received.

It is my hope that my identity gives more credence to my words. If I talk the talk, then I’d like to show that I walk the walk. If I write about research productivity, then I need to show that I actually, you know, publish. If I write about mentorship, then a cranky person can track down my students. Of course, any writer should be judged by one’s words and not by one’s credentials. So, the credence that I might get from my identity would only be temporarily bought, from the population that is unfamiliar with the mores of the pseudonymous science “blogosphere.” That turns out to be most people.

Before I started blogging, I did a little bit of amateur sociological fieldwork. I learned that most people don’t read blogs on a regular basis. I learned that a visit to a blog can be like arriving at an intimate party where you don’t know anybody. In contrast, I want my blog to be approachable to everybody. I want to be the guy who walks over to the front door, says “Hi, I’m Terry. Come on in. Can I get you something to drink? Let me introduce you to these folks.” I want every single blog post to be able to stand on its own, and to not make any references to other people or other blogs that aren’t fully understandable to a novice.

And I want people to know who is addressing them. It’s more approachable to guests who just put their foot through the front door. I’ve written more here about my approach to running my site so that it is transparent, professional, and inclusive. I’m not claiming that my approach is better than others, but I try to be different in a way that, I hope, broadens the audience.

Compared to most other bloggers, it’s easy for me to be public: I represent the trifecta of privilege as a tenured white man. And I’m straight. I don’t have to worry about the job market anymore, and I won’t be attacked because of my gender or ethnicity, like some of my colleagues.

It’s my duty to use this relative comfort to agitate for change. It’s the best and most important part of my job.

I am the great grandchild of wops and micks who immigrated into a low-income ethnic enclave of New York City. I fight a similar battle as my great grandparents, not for myself but on behalf of my students. My lab is mostly composed of students from traditionally underrepresented groups, from low-income backgrounds, who are often the first in their families to attend college. Every day, I work to ameliorate the mountain of prejudice and disadvantage facing my students.

I can stick my neck out on occasion. I can press for student rights, call out bias, and encourage practices that make sure that the future generation of scientists looks like the American populace. My privilege doesn’t come without minor challenges. I need to be clear about my awareness of power differentials and where privilege lies. While I have been working very hard to declare myself as an ally and advocate, I’ve heard far too often that I’m not the right person to advocate for my students. But I won’t shut up, and it’s a challenge that I’m up to, because these things matter.

It’s rare that people accuse me of being out of touch because of my tenured-white-dudeness, but it happens. The last time I touched on the topic of my pseudonymity, I got burned. A formerly-pseudonymous colleague posted my name and picture, right next to a picture of herself with a black eye from a vicious assault, suggesting that attitudes like mine were partly to blame. One commenter remarked that I am a danger to children. My crime was ignorance of the fact that some people have good reasons to use pseudonyms. Like I didn’t know that or something. I was also guilty of not doing a literature search on the history of writing about pseudonymity in the “blogosphere.” You know you’re been shamed when the author has to write a caveat that you’re not actually being shamed.

I’m okay with the occasional potshot because risks are necessary to make change. The real risk is that I am a highly flawed model for the change I wish to see. I write about being an effective professor, but I was denied tenure. I push for more and better mentorship of minority students and women, but I’m a white guy. I write a regular set of posts on efficient teaching but I’m not winning any teaching awards. I write about time management and how to do research with a heavy teaching load, but lately I’ve been in the classroom much less than my departmentmates.

I’d like to help change the environment so that more people find it possible and worthwhile to write with their own names. For some, that environment already, tenuously, exists. This post by tressiemc about her choice to use her own identity is powerful and inspirational. I applaud her courage, and I believe we all stand to gain from it.

Based on the volume of what I’ve written, there is no shortage of people who consider me to be a rube, buffoon, blowhard, or a narcissist. That’s a chance I’ve taken. But these challenges and worries are infinitesimal compared to the truckloads of bunk that my students, and many of my junior colleagues, have to face every day. Because I am capable of using my own name while writing on their behalf, I am.

Getting back to the routine.

Standard

Last year was a pretty big one for me, both personally and professionally. We bought a row house and moved to the city where my husband works, meaning a significantly different commute for me. I also interviewed for two permanent faculty jobs here in Sweden but was offered neither. I started chatting on twitter and writing here. All in all, despite some disappointments, it was a good year for learning and exploring. I’m really excited with the direction both my personal and professional life is going. But by the end of this busy year of challenges and changes, my whole family was exhausted.

This Christmas/New Year holiday, we decided to stay at home. We had some friends visit and share celebrations but we stayed put. Having a 4 year old means that we are also pleasantly forced into taking a real holiday. When the daycare closes, it is family time. In Sweden, Jan 6th is also a holiday, so today is the first day back to reality.

Living without a schedule for a couple of weeks has been relaxing. We enjoyed lazy mornings and unstructured days. Without setting out to do it, this break also became a ‘get fit’ holiday. The weather was depressing here in Sweden; no white Christmas for us. Given that we’re so far north that also means that it is dark and the rainy grey weather really hasn’t helped. But the relatively warm weather was good for getting us out for regular runs. I’m hoping we can continue regular exercise as the semester gears up but I know that it will be harder when balancing few daylight hours, commuting and working.

Academia is a funny place for schedules. Although when you are teaching there is little flexibility for those hours and as the semester gets back under way departmental seminars and meetings start to fill up your schedule, much of our time is quite flexible. There are lots of demands on that time but how you arrange it is often up to you. As a grad student, I used to be much more irregular in my working time, working early or late as it suited. Now with the twin pressures of a commuting schedule and daycare opening hours, my schedule is pretty much set each day. That always makes it challenging to get back in the rhythm after some time away. So this week we all face the challenge of getting back into the regular routine.

How scheduled are your days? Whether you took real holidays or just got away from the scheduled pressures of the semester this break, how do you get back into the routine? I always find that it takes me a bit to get back to being efficient and productive after setting things aside. So I usually tackle small tasks and try to cross off as many things off of a to do list as possible to get me back into work. It helps me feel productive and get a handle on what needs to be done. My first day back includes really reading the review from our recently rejected paper and seeing what to change before submitting elsewhere, pursuing a few papers for a meeting about potential collaborations later this week, finishing up commenting on a student’s work, writing a few emails to collaborators and planning more seriously for the coming days. I’m off to North America in less than two weeks so that should give me just enough time to get back into the swing of things before completely throwing off my schedule again!

This attempt to create an inclusive professional blog

Standard

Running this blog has been a wonderful experience. I think it’s a productive and professional use of my time, and my intention is that those who spend time visiting this site will feel the same.

But.

In person, I typically am ashamed to even mention that I have a blog. This is equally true in professional and personal contexts. On average, having a blog is not a positive thing. I usually will only talk about this site after someone else brings it up.

I read a variety of blogs, so I have plenty of respect for some bloggers and their work. I hope that Small Pond Science continues to earn respect from others, throughout the scientific and academic communities. I recognize that respect is earned, especially in this specious and heterogeneous medium.

People who are not regular blog readers – which is most people – tend to think that a blog is a public diary, where people post about their meals and alternately brag and complain about their friends and family. Obviously that’s wrong, or at least an oversimplification.

To outsiders, it appears that there is a blogging scene among scientific and academic bloggers. At first glance, it may appear to be populated with a small cast of characters that have mutual respect and admiration for one another, spiced with an occasional dose of antipathy.

I don’t know how others feel, but even the existence of a “blogging scene” feels exclusionary to me. When I do visit blogs tied to the scene, I identify a variety of things that serve as barriers to new readers and people who don’t perceive that they are members of the community. The tone is highly personalized, and there are references to other blog buddies, narratives referring to in-jokes and incidents from earlier times, and there is the occasional use of pet names or acronyms.

Of course, many people who write and read blogs might point out that this highly personalized approach to a blog is not a bug but a feature. Especially for people in a position where they would be marginalized for speaking out, there are benefits to creating a closer-knit community that doesn’t make too much sense to outsiders. Of course, anybody can have a blog and they are free to write whatever they wish in that blog (unless they’re in the SciAm network). I’m totally cool with that. Write whatever you want in your blog, by all means. No sarcasm is intended.

The upshot is that when I read most blogs, I think to myself: this is a club to which I do not belong.

This last week, it was revealed that a central figure in the science blogging club is a lecherous creep. Now that the reeling is over, club members are evaluating the structure of their community more broadly to understand how such a malevolent oaf could gain so much power. As I’m not a member of the club, I can’t really contribute much of value to that discussion. I’ve never met any of the central figures. (I only know one person who is in any blog network, on account of a shared research expertise in a certain family of insects.)

One side effect of the events of the last week is that all kinds of blog readers and twitter followers are now getting a heavy dose of understanding how clubby this club is. This club is not exclusionary by intent, and I imagine that newcomers are welcomed quite quickly. However, it’s still a club, and the price of admission is an interest and investment of time in building relationships with people in the club.

There are some excellent blogs out there by people who don’t appear to be members of the club. I don’t know if Female Science Professor has ever buddied around with other bloggers. If she does then you wouldn’t realize it from being a semi-regular reader of her site. This is quite different than most other bloggers of academia, whose blogs make it pretty obvious that they are buddies with other bloggers and this buddy network features heavily in the content and context of posts.

There is a different kind of club for science bloggers, many who mostly write professional and not-overly-personal pieces on their blogs but engage in social media in a manner that seems exclusive and, well, clubby, to outsiders.

It is inevitable that the professional and the personal will intermingle when professionals spend time together as a part of their jobs. I’m not in a blogging club, but am I in other professional clubs? Sure. There are the people who work at the same rainforest field station, and there are people who work on the same taxon as myself. These personal relationships are a kind of glue that keep professional networks together, and friendship among colleagues is not inherently inappropriate. (A post by Chad Orzel, and including the associated comments which are thoughtful and productive, deals some of these issues.)

Many bloggers, though some of them even regard their blogs as a professional endeavor, conduct much of their blog-related friendships in the public arena. This public friendship happens sometimes through the content of posts, sometimes in comments on posts, and heavily on twitter. Many of these bloggers have thousands of followers who might have started following bloggers for professional reasons but very promptly were introduced into the interactions of their personal lives. Science blogs purportedly exist for science education and outreach, but they also come, whether you like it or not, with a heavy dose of the personal lives of bloggers and their friendships with one another.

The clubs of bloggers are very different from other professional clubs. What is the difference? The activity that brings the blogger club together is the medium through which they communicate. The personal aspects of their professional relationships are transparent and unavoidable to the public that is seeking information about science or academia.

Bloggers of science and academia conduct their business on their blogs, and also heavily socialize using their blogs and the social media directly tied to these blogs. If there is a line between the blogs of science and academia, and the social life of the bloggers, it’s so blurry that it is indistinguishable. I might have jumped into conversations with others in social media on occasion, but I hope that hasn’t resulted in a site that makes it looks like it is designed to be a social enterprise. Having my own blog has led to communicating with people with whom I might become friends. However, I’ll be darned if the those friendships chase away people who otherwise would read the site. I don’t want anybody to even suspect, for a moment, that by reading this site that they are looking at the internal workings of a club.

When I am doing my job as a tropical biologist or an ant biologist, my participation in professional clubs is not obvious in the primary activity of the club: scientific research, publication in journals, and the training of students. We socialize in person and through social media, but this kind of socialization doesn’t directly interfere with our missions of research and student training. In some ways it can indirectly help and indirectly hinder our goals, depending on individuals.

I’m not in a position to tell other people how to run their blogs. However, because the prevailing norm is different than what I wish for my blog, then I have to deal with the fact that this site is, by design, different than other blogs. I’m shooting for elements of Female Science Professor, Myrmecos, Dynamic Ecology and the New York Times. I want this site to be fundamentally different than a newspaper, but I would like to be journalistic in professionalism and accessibility. I want someone who comes here to not think that this site is just some blog, but to see content and ideas that serve the mission and are not designed for the discussion or entertainment of a social club.

While being in the blogger club would bring more attention to this site, it also would also put a fence around the site and keep some people out. I want everybody to feel welcome. I honestly don’t know how well I’ve accomplished this goal to date, and by sharing this mission overtly and publicly, I set the bar for a standard that I wish to maintain.

A little literature on how pseudonymity may alter reach or impact

Standard

Recently, I wondered in a post whether the vagueness of the identity of an author affects the dissemination and acceptance of the author’s ideas.

It doesn’t matter to me whether someone chooses to write under a pseudonym. Nevertheless, is true that some audiences receive messages with greater skepticism — or more credulity — if the creators don’t reveal their identity. This fact was rapidly confirmed, by responses from those with pseudonymous blogging experience. There were comments and posts, reporting that some people are fed up with people in power (tenured white men) claiming that pseudonymous blogs are lame.

Meanwhile, the specific idea that I was addressing in the post was mostly overlooked. While some people rebutted an argument I never made (about the choice to use a pseudonym), only a couple comments addressed my question with substance, and I’m still interested in the topic. What are the consequences of pseudonymity for the impact of a message, and what factors shape that relationship? I found that the answer isn’t readily available, but here is some of what I’ve found.

For starters, here are some examples that I didn’t bring up in my post, because I was mostly focused on Banksy. I was surprised that nobody in the comments pointed out that the first t-test was published by an initially pseudonymous author, “Student.” Clearly, that was a success.

In the realm of politics, I’ve always been curious how the authors of the Federalist Papers thought about how their (then) anonymity affected the influence of their writing, and apparently it’s debatable about whether they actually had an influence on how ratification happened. And, I wonder how sales of Primary Colors would have been different (higher or lower?) if Joe Klein’s identity was never concealed, instead of being revealed six months after publication.

Clearly, whether or not a message connects to a serious cause of a disenfranchised group matters. I would have thought that there would be more scholarship on this, but then again I probably have lost my touch at searching the literature outside the sciences. I found an interesting article (“How I Look”: Fanny Fern and the Strategy of Pseudonymity) about Fanny Fern, whose use of a pseudonym was tied to gender-based discrimination. (Note that the guy who wrote this article is a white dude.) It remains unclear whether her popularity would have been different if she had used her own name, and grounds for speculation.

What about what happens on online communities? They do function better when members are pseudonymous. This wasn’t a surprise to me, but might be to those who have claimed say that pseudonyms are used to bully others. Here are two articles on the topic:

Anonymously productive and socially engaged while learning at work: Quickie summary: Having a pseudonym results in more collaboration, and more chattiness.

Impact of Anonymity (Unlinkability, Pseudonymity, Unobservability) on Information Sharing Quickie summary: Having a pseudonym results in more and better sharing of information online. Does this mean that they have a bigger effect offline? Unclear, and grounds for speculation.

Let’s take a look at when speaking out on an issue really matters: whistleblowing. One commenter on my earlier post explained how protecting oneself from reprisals was important in her line of work. I wanted to find out whether whistleblowing was more likely to lead to action, based on whether or not the whistleblower was anonymous. I couldn’t find that much on this, based on a moderately cursory search, but the one thing I did find clearly indicated that when one’s identity is hidden then a whistleblowing alert is far less likely to result in any action than when the whistleblowers put themselves on the line by including their identity.

Clearly, whistleblowers have great reasons for protecting themselves by hiding their identities. However, this concealment of their identity unfortunately also limits the effectiveness of their own whistleblowing actions. This is the kind of phenomenon I had in mind while writing my original post. I don’t want to generalize from it, but I wanted to share it with readers because this is the kind of information I was interested in when I posted about it earlier.

Welcome back! Changes for Fall 2013!

Standard

I slowed the blog down over the summer, and now we’re shifting back the academic-year again. After reflection and experience, there’ll be some changes.

But first, what did I do this summer? I worked with students in the field for about three weeks, went to a conference, joined a working group, partially taught a field course, and a few other things. I am now just back from three weeks of bona-fide vacation away from home. Vacation was great, but this ain’t the venue for that.

My kid is back in school, I’m back on campus getting ready for the semester, and we have a ton of samples and a mountain of data to work up. And about three almost-submitted papers that need go get out. Good times!

The aspirational goal of the site is to promote the role of research in teaching institutions, and to enhance our profile and engagement in research communities. I don’t know exactly how a blog is supposed to do that, but I suppose being part of the conversation matters. I think things are at least going in that direction, though I don’t know the rate of travel. I have some related anecdotes that might be fun to share later on.

In the six months since starting the site, I’ve learned a lot about the time required to run a journalistic blog. The upshot is that, now that site is launched, I’m thinking it is reasonable to publish 2-3 times per week, instead of the five times per week when I started the site. Here’s the rationale, below. I realize I don’t need to provide one, but if you’re wondering my reasoning, here you go. Thoughts and corrections are welcome, of course:

  • Blogs should be well read by the core audience and is regularly updated. A bunch of people read most things that are posted on the site. I’m not an analytics dude, but I suspect that most regular readers look at the site a few times per week. That makes me more comfortable with the idea of posting a few times per week. I realize that it is critical to post regularly, if not daily, but also, I suspect that some posts are not seen by regular readers because they come out too frequently. If I make a point of creating posts that are thoughtful and substantial, then I’d rather have them have a broader reach. Simply put, I think it takes a few days for a post to have its full reach, and if I keep coming out with new posts before people are done reading the older ones, then they get overlooked.
  • Quality writing takes time.  When it comes to workload, time = money. I cannot sustainably write a post to my level of satisfaction every weekday, unless I am able to purchase a formal part of my university workload for blogging. When people have asked, “how do I find the time?” I answer that I’ve treated the site like a class of its own, just with a bigger audience. While blogging has a bigger reach, it doesn’t (yet) pay the bills and my primary duty is to my own students. If I were to maintain the level of journalistic quantity and quality for the indefinite future, I’d need modest, but non-trivial, amount of cash. (Sugar daddies, feel free to call.)
  • I realize that I’d have more readers if I included images with every post. But I don’t. Most posts won’t be improved with a corresponding image that someone else already created. If you think text is boring, then perhaps you aren’t reading enough literature. You want photos of stuff? Go read some pap on the Huffington Post. The world is gorgeously visual. If you want beautiful images, go outside. On the other hand, if you’re an artistically talented person and wanted to make an original sketch to go with each post, then I’d be interested in the possibility of teaming up. (I usually have my posts written a few days before going to press, unless it’s on a very current topic.)
  • I enjoy a good novel. I haven’t read enough non-science since starting the blog. This is a problem.
  • I need to finish more manuscripts, and I still need to learn R. I have too many projects at the almost-done stage, and a few in the exciting early-development phase. I want to get working on these, and this is the kind of stuff that I might get done if I’m blogging every single day.
  • A multiplicity of views is great. I’m thinking about taking on one or two occasional or regular contributors. I don’t exactly know how this would work out, and I need to sort this out more, but there are lots of people with experiences different from myself who would be able to write some amazing things for the site. Wouldn’t that be neat? (Interested in being one of them? Let me know.) Also, along with the notion of facilitating a multiplicity of views, I’m going to make a point from refraining from commenting on posts within the first day or two after it appears, except when there are questions directed specifically to me. This practice follows changes made by Jeremy Fox at Dynamic Ecology. When the blog was younger, I wanted to respond to comments to facilitate a conversation. Now that there are more readers, I don’t need to fulfill that role. I’ve already had my say in the post, and what others choose to say should matter more in the comments.

These are things of which I was aware, but I hadn’t really learned until after doing it for six months. Thanks for your continuing interest. If you’d like to give feedback on what is working, and not working on the site, I’d be appreciative if you were to share in the comments in this post, anonymously or otherwise. Or send me an email or use some other social media platform.

On pseudonymity and making a difference in the world (updated)

Standard
New York City

New York City

My favorite pseudonymous person out there, without a doubt, is Banksy.

If you aren’t familiar with Banksy, check out some of his work. It’s spectacular. I’m not a professional art critic so I won’t say more about why this body of work rocks. Banksy’s work can speak for itself.

Because of his primary medium – public structures – people who own these structures are making huge profits by selling his work to private individuals though he designed it to be seen in public.

I don’t think he imagined several years ago, that a public wall would be removed from a structure so that his stencil graffiti would be sold at auction as fine art. I think it’s kind of awesome – a work of art highlighting the profiteering nature of humanity – that graffiti can become so valuable so quickly. The irony is delicious, that graffiti is undesirable by a property owner, unless it can be sold.

Banksy’s work is, arguably, a victim of its success, in that it is taken from the public after it is made.

The art of Banksy features a set of criticisms that are best seen broadly by the public. It is successful as social commentary, and the whole point of it, I would guess, is that they get seen by people.

If Banksy were not pseudonymous, he could create all kinds of public art, that would be far more likely to stay intact. But that’s not the way he rolls. In my opinion, part of the beauty of the work is the the lack of clarity in its origin, and that Banksy creates wealth out of a patch of wall that otherwise would be overlooked.

Since we don’t know who Banksy is, it’s easier for me to imagine that he is speaking for many of us. On the other hand, because we don’t know who Banksy is, it’s been said that he lacks credibility. I don’t think that’s true, but to many, without an identity his work is always going to have the same credibility of all other graffiti artists who are, technically, tagging illegally. I think his credibility comes from the great art itself, but that’s not a universally held notion.

I think there is a ceiling to how much difference Banksy can make in the world, because of his pseudonymity. I don’t think the social impact of something like Picasso’s Guernica could be matched by any single work by Banksy because the origin of the message matters along with the artist itself. We all might like to say that a novel, a painting, or a scientific paper can and should be seen on its own without looking at the creator. But, really, who the creator is matters, a lot. We know Banksy by his work, that’s not quite the same. The veil matters. People will think that he doesn’t have any skin in the game. In Banksy’s case, the veil is part of the art itself.

Closer to my own realm, some of the louder voices on the internet about life in science come from a cadre of pseudonymous science bloggers.

They don’t blog about their own science, because, well, then the veil would be lifted from the pseudonym. There are many real concerns that the pseudonymous science bloggers have, about life balance, gender equity, federal funding policies, research transparency, academic misconduct, and other stuff, including shoes.

This might be obvious, it wasn’t initially to me: a pseudonym makes a blog more personal.

This week, one topic that’s come up among pseudonymous bloggers is the fact that things are a lot harder for women in science compared to men, especially for those who have kids. These pseudonymous people seem to want change in culture and policies, in the direction of equity. There are some interesting discussions, and a lot of great ideas. But, even though the pseudonymous blogs are aimed at the public, it’s all very much a private endeavor. Because the pseudonymous people are not known, at least formally, then there is a low ceiling on impact. (Of course, I bet that these pseudonymous blogs are far more widely read than this site, so I’m not arguing that I’m having more of an impact.) For example, the impact of the well-known blog Pharyngula is much greater (and mostly negative, I think) because its creator is not pseudonymous. Putting a face and name — and a public home address to boot — for the author of that blog makes both him and his words more credible.

So, what really is the point of all of discussions on pseudonymous science blogs? I honestly don’t know. I imagine it’s for the entertainment of those running the sites, to form an internal community, and to influence the lives of those who follow these sites and are interested in the experiences of these pseudonymous individuals. But I could be wrong. I suspect the veil of pseudonymity really limits what a blog can do more than the identity of the author limits the reach of a blog.

Anybody can have a site, and write whatever they want in it, and communicate with others however they want. I’m just trying to make sense of both motivations and outcomes, and I’m still confused. In the meantime, there is a clear asymmetry between what can and does happen between pseudonymous sites and those with unveiled faces.

When I started this site, I thought the distinction between the two was minor, but over time the risks and opportunities from being overtly public are more known. I’m still in the not-making-much-difference-in-the-world phase, but, well, there’s lots of time.

UPDATE: While it wasn’t intended in any way, some pseudonymous bloggers — whose work I respect — are reading this post as a dig against pseudonymous blogs. I don’t know how broad this perception is, but since I’m a regular reader — and fan — of some pseudonymous blogs I’d like to clarify that I don’t have any negative thoughts about pseudonymous blogs, and I don’t question the validity of pseudonymous blogs.

As to the specific questions I asked, there is now some good discussion about them. These questions are, apparently, old hat to pseudonymous bloggers but not yet to myself. Considering that a pseudonymous blog is what got me started in the first place, I am familiar with the genre, but not the specific motivations of the authors. What I didn’t know is — in addition to those who have quite legitimate concerns about physical safety — the relationship between a concealed identity and the ability to affect the cause that is the reason for the identity to be concealed. Folks have made some strong arguments that a pseudonymous author can affect their cause in the non-blogging world just as as well as one who uses their real identity. There are lots of great viewpoints.

When I write “I honestly don’t know” or “I’m confused,” about a topic, then that is the truth. It isn’t concern trolling, These words represent my ability to profess not understanding something. To their credit, experienced bloggers have rolled in and helped create understanding, in the comments (which are worth reading) and other posts (which can be found in the comments).

Pseudonymous bloggers have been writing for years under their assumed identities, and think about their reasons and the consequences every day, I would think. Those issues are not something I think about every day. So if I write a blog post, open to comments, about something which I’m wondering, I do appreciate it when I have constructive and informative comments, which I have received. Thanks to all of you for those.

Summer is approaching: beware the pit of crocodiles

Standard
Yes, this is a warning sign that your wheelchair might roll into a pit of crocodiles.

Yes, this is a warning sign that your wheelchair might roll into a pit of crocodiles. Photo: Terry McGlynn

Summer is upon me, and the rest of us in the temperate Northern Hemisphere.  I’ll be a little busier, keeping the away from mostly metaphorical crocodiles.

With extended travel, fieldwork, conferences and 2.5 weeks of bona fide vacation (I hope), posting frequency will be a little more sporadic until the academic year ramps up.

This summer, I’ll be thinking and writing, about the upcoming job season, academic and personal travel, and how to supervise full-time undergrads and how to best savor in summertime. What about you? Add as many new categories as you need.

Thanksgiving; a state of the blog report

Standard

It’s now the 10-week mark since the launch of this site.

I wasn’t sure to what expect when I started, but I’m pleased at the early, and evolving, outcome.

I want to thank the scores of you that have helped out one way or another, as well as consistent readers, especially those of you who have chatted up the site with colleagues and more broadly shared posts of particular interest.

I’d like to specify thanks to a few who gave me a great push in my first moments. If I had to make a list of only three, in alphabetical order, it would undoubtedly be:

Chris Buddle of Arthropod Ecology, Jeremy Fox of Dynamic Ecology and Alex Wild of Myrmecos. Thanks, guys.

These three gents have distinct and engaging approaches to science that are useful and enlightening. If you haven’t clicked on over to their sites, please do (though odds are you’ve found this site because of them). And buy some spectacular prints from Alex, as he’s got a great sale going on at the moment.

The rest of this post is something like a state-of-the-blog address, in case you wanted to know more about the site and its trajectory. If you want a detailed look under the hood, read on.

Bloggers seem to keep their viewership numbers tight to their chest, maybe like how people don’t openly specify their weight or their salary. I don’t know if I’m violating a tacit code of honor, but here goes: To date the site has been viewed almost 20,000 times; on a run-of-the-mill day, as of this week, a few hundred people are visiting. I imagine that’s a blip compared to many other blogs, but I also expect that it’s uncommon for a blog that’s only 10 weeks old. I’m fortunate for what I think is early rapid growth. Each day, several people find this site by specifically seeking it out on search engines, which suggests some word of mouth. That’s encouraging. (There was one day when a post made the top of Reddit Skeptic. That was fun.) I’m in this for the long haul, and as long as I continue to invest, then I hope to continue growing.

In my first post, I tried to identify five characteristics of a successful blog. I think on all five marks, I’m doing well. First, I work to maintain a clear focus with a useful perspective. Second, I have maintained frequent entries, with one per day, and aiming for an absolute minimum of one substantial longer-form post per week. Third, I am steadily building a community of commenters, which is a diverse crowd with all kinds of academic backgrounds. Fourth, I think I have built up a much larger group of consistent lurking readers (I suspect), and lastly, I hope that I have maintained a high standard of writing quality. It feels that way, at least, because whenever I proof a piece I always catch screwups and typos. (I might write parenthetically too often, but that is better than David Foster Wallace’s copious use of footnotes, right?) Do I still think those five things are the properties of a successful blog? I’m not sure. My views on blogging, and this site, have evolved a lot in the last ten weeks.

I’ve evolved into some patterns that work well. Each weekday, there will be a single post, unless I feel hugely compelled to write something fresh that can’t wait (such as trying to make sense of why E.O. Wilson would tell young scientists to not worry about math). I aim to have at least one substantial and longer-form piece each week, and to make sure that every post introduces or revisit a concept that matters, even if not on a large scale. I’ll save Friday afternoons or weekends for additional posts that might be more relevant to dedicated followers to discuss things about the site (like this post). I’m planning for an ‘efficient teaching’ post weekly, and there are some other plans in the works. I’d love to hear from you via comments or email about what is working and what isn’t.

Summers will be quieter. Come late May, when I’m away doing fieldwork and on some extended travel, posting frequency will drop to 1-3 per week, but will pick back up in late August when the academic year starts back up again. I imagine that a lot of these posts will be about travel, fieldwork, student mentorship, conferences, and writing. Because that’s what I’ll be doing this summer.

If you want to be notified when a post comes out, you can subscribe to the blog with your email address, or sign onto tweet face. (In addition to the blog’s official page on facebook, you can connect with my personal facebook profile, too, using my email address. I don’t do much there and keep is mostly professional, but it’s been good for staying in touch with people.) Or you could just check in at some point in the day or week and get caught up. Or you could do a crossword puzzle instead.

Blogs are, perhaps by definition, a personal medium. I use the pronoun “I” frequently, but notwithstanding that fact I am intent on making this site about ideas, and not about myself. When I insert my own stuff into the picture, I’m doing it to serve the mission of the blog.

Broadly, my mission is to make sense of our jobs as scientists and teachers. Specifically, the mission is to represent, advocate for, support and provide a venue for researchers in teaching institutions. I’m not pleased to hold myself forth as a model, but I recognize that this is a necessary consequence of creating such a site.

Because we at teaching institutions inherently lack credibility with those at research institutions, I couldn’t have done this blog pseudonymously because part of the credibility is derived from the fact of my actual existence. Someone at a teaching school could claim that they’re a researcher, but people at R1 universities wouldn’t put much stock in it without looking at that person’s CV. It’s no accident that the CV on my lab website is being scrutinized a lot more closely now than it was 10 weeks ago. It’s not a strong CV by many R1 standards, but I hope it does show that I am a genuine researcher at a genuine teaching campus. I’ve yet to receive negative feedback for being uppity or self-centered, but the site is young. The challenge I have to face, then, is to live up to my own expectations for what a researcher at a teaching institution should look like. I won’t always live up to this, I realize.

I am aspiring to build something that is rare among academic blogs. There is clearly a niche for researchers in teaching institutions. More importantly, there is a niche for a substantial journalistic approach to writing about the relationships among research, teaching and academia. This is particularly true since Female Science Professor scaled back to a few posts per month.

I want this blog to be read by people who don’t typically read blogs. Most academics in many fields don’t read blogs, or at least don’t admit to it. I don’t know how to reach that audience. I imagine it just takes time and word of mouth. I’m reluctant to say something crazy or argue unnecessarily just to get temporary eyeballs. I realize that might slow my growth rate, but it will also help me to attract an audience that may otherwise be deterred by the general tenor found in most blogs.

I hope that this site can, at least by raising awareness, enhance the underappreciated role of teaching universities in research and academic life. If all kinds of researchers visit this site, they can examine their options and form a realistic view of what is possible (and yes, what isn’t possible) at teaching institutions. They also can adopt a more informed view of their colleagues.

The reason that I want to reach out to people who don’t typically read blogs is not (just) to gain a bigger audience. The hard-working and researchers and teachers in teaching institutions are overlooked, and this community that I want to represent doesn’t live in the internet. We work on campuses, publish in journals and make valuable academic contributions to our own fields. If I’m successful in this blog, then the conversation only starts on this site and makes a difference elsewhere, including campuses, professional societies, editorial boards, and funding agencies. Is that ambitious? Yes, it is. Is it overambitious? Time will tell. One measuring stick would be if we see an emergence of academic bloggers at teaching campuses, who choose to join the community of bloggers that now are mostly in research institutions. We’re all equivalently busy and overworked, in different ways. I want those of us at teaching schools to realize that we belong as much as everyone else.

I’m working towards that goal, of reaching out to many, by providing a broader value and respect for your time than I find in most blogs. I am working to do this by maintaining quality, focus, an absence of in-jokes, and emphasizing constructive engagement with whatever issue is at hand. I may have plenty to gripe about, but I don’t want to spend your time, nor mine, that way. I rarely have the answers, but I want to ask the right questions and get people to think about issues that might not have occurred to them before.

I suppose I should have photoshopped a picture of an ant standing at a podium with an American flag, flanked by Joe Biden and Boehner. But this is the best I could find.