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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What do students really get out of REU’s?

Hello. I’m a freshly pressed Bachelor’s in A Hard Science and I’m new here to Tenure, She Wrote. I’m here to provide some fresh perspective from the smol side of academia–namely, how my experiences in undergrad have shown me what we need to change in Everyday Academia.

I’m here to share some stories about everyone’s favorite Thing That Looks CV Impressive–the REU.

 

REU’s (Research Experience for Undergrads) are typically touted as these absolutely amazing internships–the Rolls Royces of summer research. Us students supposedly get good (for students) salary, amazing mentorship, and the chance to come into our own as researchers by doing our own projects away from a home institution.

As someone who has been through two REU’s and an international exchange, let me tell you how much that isn’t true. Continue reading

Where the Overrepresented are Underrepresented

Hi everyone! I’m excited to be back at Tenure, She Wrote. I’ve spent my time away from the site using a lot of the advice written here and am very excited to be able to come back to the blog as a new Assistant Professor!

Over the course of my first year in my new job, there have been a lot of opportunities for me to learn more about pedagogy and evidence-based techniques for teaching students in STEM. I went to quite a few of these, since the thought of teaching had me feeling like I’ve been thrown to the wolves. I understand that’s a common experience, especially since many of us spend most of the previous ~decade doing research first as a grad student then as a post doc without learning terribly much on how to effectively teach students.

chairs classroom college desks

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

From the very first one I attended, what really stood out to me was how not-alone I was. In my field, men outnumber women by about 10:1, and I’ve been on experiments where I’m the only woman on the team. The statistics are even worse for minority and marginalized groups, and being a queer and trans woman meant I was it for most of my entire career. But a quick head count at all of these events for new professors revealed the same thing over and over: There’s a far higher percentage of women, people of color, and LGBT people who attend STEM education workshops and conferences than any place within the rest of my field.

Being a scientist, I started with counting the obvious. Using names of attendees to attempt to estimate gender percentages is a very imperfect method, but I started seeing ratios that were 3x, 4x, and higher at these STEM education events than the general population in my field, and even just within my own department. At the most recent event, I was even one of three (!!!) trans professors who attended.

I never thought I’d ask this about something science related, but the question that has been on my mind as I go to each of these is: Where are all the straight white men?

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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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Leveling up: does sexism get worse as you advance?

Editor’s note: Tenure, She Wrote is back! If you’re just joining us, we were a pretty happenin’ blog space a few years back. I started this collaborative blog with Dr. Mellivora the summer before we both started faculty positions. Then pre-tenure life caught up, we all got busy, and TSW went dark, except for an occasional post. There was a part of me that thought that maybe we didn’t need this space anymore, too. That we had made strides towards gender equality in academia, and things were on the uptick, and that we’d outgrown the need for this content.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, #MeToo, the National Academy’s failure to address convicted sexual predators in its own ranks, and heck, my own lived experience, I’ve realized that I was so, so wrong. We need these spaces — outspoken, intersectional, unapologetically feminist spaces — more than ever. So I’m excited to announce that we’re back, with a mix of fresh voices and seasoned (salty?) veterans. Stay tuned for their posts in the coming weeks. 

Anniversaries are always good times to reflect. Our first post, on July 1st, 2013, was about mentoring — I was just starting to think seriously about what it would mean to lead my own lab. This was before I’d even stepped foot on campus; before I’d met many of my colleagues, before I’d really seen my lab space, ordered equipment, or even met one of my chairs. Five years later, I’m in the last push before tenure; I’ll submit my package later this year. So much has happened since I wrote that first post: students have defended, papers have been published, grants have been acquired, classes developed and taught. I’m really confident in my performance, despite a lot of hardships — some of which I’ve written about here, and many things I haven’t yet been able to write about.

It’s really striking, though, to think of who I am, and my relationship to this job, as I approach tenure, in comparison to who I was when I started this blog. One of the biggest things is that sexism and harassment in STEM were largely intellectual ideas for me, then. I’d experienced micro-aggressions, sure. But the worst offenses were ones I’d seen my friends and colleagues go through, not me. And while I’ve still been spared some of the worst experiences, my experience of sexism in academia as institutional, rather than personal (i.e., something that has affected me personally), has changed.  Continue reading

First Ladies of the Academy

The last presidential election cycle in the United States raised many, many questions. One of them was: “is the role of the first lady outdated?”  When the incoming First Lady didn’t do exactly as her predecessors had, or as many had decided was traditional, many thinkpieces were written and hot takes had.** While it can seem like a laughably lighthearted question, the kind of thing relegated to the lifestyle section of national newspapers, I’d argue it’s more important than ever – and incredibly relevant to academia.

Cultural norms are often only visible after they are broken, and this has been true for the perceived (in)actions of the current first lady.  Consider this passage from a Huffington Post piece: Continue reading