survival and activism in academia

Hi all, it’s your favorite sunflowering baddie, and I’m here to quickly let y’all know that activism and survival in academia are not mutually exclusive. It is not necessary to pick one over the other, and the fact that a lot of (old, white, male) folks in academia are insisting that you do so should tell you all you need to know.

I’m talking about this right now, in brief, because of a conversation I had this morning with my advisor about whether or not my significant branding within the institutions I participate in dilutes my science. My advisor argued that I needed to maybe begin toning it down, because what I needed right now is science publications and not Internet notoriety for having loud opinions.

To me, this conversation is wild because the entire reason I had enough clout in the ecological community as a whole to even get into graduate school was because my activism gave me the voice and space I needed to be able to do science. As a first-year student at a PWI, I needed not only to speak up to advocate for myself and my ability to do science; but I also needed allies willing to hear me out and create a space with me. This was the only way I could craft my eventual science persona as a biogeochemist, and the fact that I do advocate for justice in STEM shouldn’t detract from my actual scientific work. Think about it: for what other extracurricular activity could you be shamed for in this way? No one says that someone’s knitting habit detracts from their ability to be an amazing bird ecologist; so why does my social justice activism define my ability to use a thermal conversion elemental analyzer and write about it?

In truth, the reason white women and POC (especially qtWOC) get flak for their activism is because it makes the gatekeepers of power uncomfortable. If we are constantly clamoring for change while tossing around additional weight of our science, it throws into disarray a lot of the dogma that white academia has clung to for so long–namely, that science is an apolitical meritocracy. If URMs point out that our strength in the sciences is in spite of the machinations of an academia made for white men, it forces those white men to reconsider their existence in the system. This is uncomfortable, and it should be. White men have never needed to fight for their humanity in a system meant to exclude them; the idea that they’ve gotten along not just because of their science (stellar or not) but because of a system functionally built to value them (the person) is scary. Which, welcome to the world of URMs–where we constantly juggle the micro and macroaggressions of the people around us just to be able to do the science that should be buying us a seat at the table.

Believe you me, there is nothing I would’ve liked better for me to only talk about my love of carbon cycling and the root-soil interface. I wish every day that I was in a position where my academic life functioned only as a vehicle for my science. Unfortunately, my existence as a queer first gen Latinx means my entire existence in academia is mediated through the intersections of my race, orientation, and class status. Academia does not exist in a vacuum: and is just as affected by the society it exists within as academia affects the society it is part of. The current way academia is run, I have no choice but to to amazing science but also incredible amounts of activism. It the only way I survived to this point. For a lot of URM’s, there comes a point in our lives where simply staying silent endangers us more than making noise does. I lived a lot of my undergraduate years trying to sit silently by, eating the injustices done to me by white academics who constantly discounted my science and my mind because of my ethnicity and gender presentation. All it did was leave me at the end of a jetty at a Famous Biological Lab, debating whether or not I should just leave science or leave this world entirely.

In the end, I am still here in academia because I spoke up: I spoke up about my science, and I spoke up about the injustices done to people of color who just wanted to do science. Through both sets of being active, I was able to find the people I now call my mentors and friends; and the people who ended up writing my letters of rec to get me into graduate school. The day that academia lets URM’s thrive without the constant slam of micro|macro|aggressions and harassment, the day that kids who look like me don’t have to buy their humanity by overworking themselves or hyperactivism; on that day where students of color can go into academia with the same expectations placed on them (and same benefits given to them) as their white peers,

On that day, I will finally shut up about social justice and do nothing but run the thermal combustion elemental analyzer and write about the soil-root interface.

Until then,

-sunflowerqueen

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Some problems with that productivity paper

Last month a study was released* by Yana Gellen** of the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at The University of Chicago, “Motherhood and the Gender Productivity Gap.”

Some outlets, like the American Enterprise Institute and Wall Street Journal, have jumped onto the study and claimed this is the reason that working mothers don’t earn as much as men – they aren’t working as much or as productively.  But does the study really show that?  And what does all this mean for working mothers in the academy?

Does this study prove that mothers are less productive?

In short, no.  Digging into the methods – there are some major problems with how this study was done.
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Postdoc-ing While Pregnant

Everything makes sense when you are in the planning stages. At least when I make plans it does. The problem always seems to be with the execution. When my husband and I sat down to talk about having a baby in my last year of my PhD program everything was going to work seamlessly. I would wrap up my remaining lab work, move home, we’d get pregnant and then I’d spend the duration of my pregnancy writing and defending the PhD and applying for postdocs. Based on what I had heard about the job market it could take a while. So with the downtime of being between jobs I could raise the little Niffler and be ready for work whenever it appeared. And yet, life did not work out that way.

Completing my experiments took longer than planned, writing my dissertation and getting it approved went TERRIBLY and longer than I planned, and conceiving a child took MUCH longer than I planned. All of the extra time it took to accomplish my goals wouldn’t have been a big deal accept the one thing I planned to take time didn’t. I was offered and accepted the first postdoc I applied for. It was a dream job with a great PI that I could not say no to. So now, I find myself a year and a half later only having graduated 2 months ago, 2 months into a postdoc and 7 months pregnant.  I am EXHAUSTED.
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Why is it always my job to fix men?

I was a pretty serious tomboy as a kid. I mostly wore oversized t-shirts, jeans from the boy’s section, converse high tops, and most of my friends were boys. I was also a good student, and a well-behaved kid. Unlike many of the boys I considered my closest friends, I never had to sit on the hard polished wooden bench outside of the Principal’s office.

This dynamic apparently did not go unnoticed by my elementary school. In the 4th grade, my teacher paired me in a classroom with a number of these “troubled” boys. When my mother asked about this, she was told by the (female) teacher that it was because I ‘calmed them down’. My mother was furious. Why was it my job to make these boys behave? Why should my educational needs be potentially compromised or not taken into consideration because these boys needed help that the teacher and the school wasn’t prepared to provide? While she was enraged, I felt a different feeling – a strange sensation of pleasure at being “the one” who could solve all of these boys’ problems just by my mere presence.
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More than a scientist

Less than a month into grad school, I had my first potential-PI meeting.  The professor was a Nobel laureate, I’d spoken with him in writing a fellowship proposal, and I’d spent most of my summer envisioning myself in his lab.  He was interested in the fact that I’d left industry to do my PhD, and wanted to know why.

I explained that I wanted to see the culture of science change.  I wanted to work my way up and gain a position from which I could influence policy and make the scientific community more welcoming to folks from different backgrounds—more welcoming to people who looked like me, like my (Latin@) family, like my (queer, trans, low income) communities.  And under all of this, of course, because I wanted to do science!  But when I described my passion for change, the man looked at me across the table with disbelief and said, “That’s why you came to grad school?” Continue reading

On seeking accommodations in school

I’ve known for a long time that accommodations are a Thing–that is, that they existed.  About a year back, TSW had an excellent guest post on this very topic, outlining what sorts of accommodations exist, who qualifies for them, and some of the hurdles folks face in moving through the system.  I hope for this post to serve more as a personal case study, to describe my experience in requesting accommodations for the first time, and to offer any insight I might have gained from the experience.

I’ve written a bit already about my mental health.  As I mentioned in that post, I have pretty serious depression, but I’ve found a combination of therapy, medication, and physical activity that keep me pretty darn happy and stable.  That said, though, most of my first year in grad school has been tougher than it needed to be due to my housing situation. Continue reading

When Teaching is Like Social Work

I am writing from the 11th week of our semester and kicking myself. What was I thinking agreeing to write a post at the end of April? So here you have my most honest and unfiltered thoughts now that I am nearing the end of my first year teaching community college full time.

Wow. It is hard. It is brutally hard on my body in a way that is completely unfamiliar from my previous experiences in higher ed. Teaching so many students at two different campuses requires much more communicating than I have done as an academic introvert. And it’s not just the teaching/ meeting with students/ grading responsibilities. While my students try to complete freshman writing, they are dealing with childcare worries, hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction in their families, and significant health concerns. Continue reading