The Caste System in School 2

Here’s what was impressive — most of my classes really seem to understand this stuff. they get it, and they point out the ridiculous behavior of these characters. Even more important is how they began to notice all the secret things authors do to explain the characters in these stories. For example :

  • In “Born Worker,” Soto tells us right off that our two characters are from different classes. He says it outright.

  • In “Oranges,” however, we have to look at the details –

    • He tells us the girl lives in a house, but he doesn’t say the boy does.

    • The girl is wearing gloves in the middle of the winter, but the boy doesn’t have any.

    • He shows us how much change the boy has in his pockets.

    • He makes them walk through a used car lot.

    • He makes the boy carry his food with him.

  • And in “Checkouts,” Rylant does the same sort of things. We learn more about the characters by what isn’t said about them:

    • The girl and the bagboy never speak to one another.

    • She lives in a house with beveled windows and several porches.

    • He wears no socks, tattered shoes, touseled hair, and can’t seem to keep his collar straightened.

    • Eventually, she seeks out a boy “down the street” (meaning, in her same nice neighborhood).

    • That new guy is also “intelligent” (a slight hint that the idea that college is for the upper crust).

    • And the boy goes off in search of girls at the local bookstore (A hint that he’s looking to move up the ladder).

The kids picked up on all these details, compared and contrasted the characters from all three texts and then moved forward with a discussion about what would have happened in each story if things turned out differently.

The Caste System in School

As much as I complain about my students, they really surprise me, and today we took that Marxism discussion even further as we compared the characters in three textx by talking about how their class levels influence their actions.

The first story is Born Worker, by Gary Soto, where we meet young Jose and his cousin Arnie. Jose is poor and Arnie is middle class and the rich cousin talks the poor cousin into a get-rich-quick scheme that will inevitably leave Arnie on top. As the story progresses we fall in love with Jose who is a strong worker, takes pride in his work, and who does Arnie’s jobs without complaint. Arnie, on the other hand, is lazy and mopes around complaining about the work while doing nothing. In the end, one of their jobs leaves an old man hurt and bleeding and Jose saves the day, but when the cops show up Arnie takes all the credit, and Jose walks away without saying a word because he knows he’s stuck in his class level and can never move out.

It’s fitting Jose feels this way because that’s how the caste system (the kids described earlier) works, and it’s often how real life turns out. The people who make themselves look important are the people who excel in life. Those who do all the grunt work do so without complaint, and are often left in the dust.

Then we read the poem “Oranges”, also by Gary Soto, where we meet a boy and a girl, both from different backgrounds and yet they make it work. They don’t succumb to the pressures of others to fit within their classes; they just igfnore all that stuff and go for love instead.

And we finally finished with a reading of the short story “Checkouts”, by Cynthia Rylant, about a rich girl who moves to a new town and falls in love with the local bagboy at the grocery store. Again, we’re confronted with kids from different class levels, but this time love does not win out. As a matter of fact, we notice that the girl chooses her class level over love, while the boy searches furtively to move up the social ladder.

Where are the disruptors ?

It’s a real challenge to locate people who don’t follow established norms and are experimenting with models that don’t fit traditional benchmarks for success in research or teaching. This is true for any field, not just science. Fortunately the blogosphere is creating its own subculture. Some of the disruptors are active and influential enough to locate through search engines, social networking sites, and conference programming. Also there is a growing alternative conference environment, with Science Online 2011 a great example of using the traditi0nal professional meeting as a springboard for discussion about new communication and research models.

But let’s say you want to make a profession out of disruption (as least as a communication and/or research model). Where should you go? What kinds of campuses are better at creating a culture of change? Where would you have the best chance of success?

One aspect of telling colleagues about changes in scholarly communication is that you have to show prestige, value, and permanence of a new method to convince people it’s worth doing. So part of my job is looking at what are perceived notions of excellence. What do rankings, evaluations, and membership information tell us about a place? A second part of my job is finding speakers to talk about this disruption – in academia, publishing, and research. I’ve found locating people the most challenging part. Getting them to speak, once I’ve found them, is not that difficult.

One discovery I’ve made is that the innovators (or at least many I’ve met so far in science) are not usually where you would expect them to be. They’re not at Harvard, or Yale, Berkeley or even many of the land grant universities in the Midwest. You would think, with all of the rhetoric about our best-funded universities being hotbeds of innovation in research ideas and productivity, that you’d see more people form there at meetings about open science, open access publishing, etc. With a few exceptions, this doesn’t appear to be true.

So I decided to look at this phenomenon in more detail. I wanted to compare some metrics about successful institutions in academia and see if there was a way to identify the disruptors from this data. So what kinds of lists in academia do many people look to for the best students, the best programs, high research productivity, and overall prestige of an institution?

It turns out there aren’t that many. I decided to use lists that were openly available to the public (which wasn’t too limiting), limited to the US (since international data on academia is pretty sparse) and limit to PhD/research universities, since the 4 and 2 year schools have less emphasis on research.

For the purposes of this experiment I limited my data to three sources:

  • US News and World Report Top National Universities (top 100 ranked institutions – this came to 104 total) – 2011 data
  • Association of American Universities Members (63 total, I omitted the any Canadian institutions on the list. There were only 2 so it was statistically insignificant.) – list available as of Jan 14, 2011
  • Association of Research Libraries Members (126 total but I omitted the Canadian institutions and non-profit organizations not a part of academia, such as the Library of Congress.) – list available as of Jan 14, 2011

Can sport teach science about excellence ? – 3

Possible ideas

If I had the money*, I would create a multi-year program. Students with initial interest and talen would enter an exploration year where they would learn about different science disciplines and do small experiments or challenges in each field. They would compete for spots in the following focus year where students would work in two areas, doing supervised research. Top students would then be chosen for a third year and perform independent research. All years would require students to read and discuss current research, write, and work in teams. What do you think?

What would you do ? How would you measure success ?

Please share your suggestions! We could design the ‘best’ program as if we had unlimited funds. It’s a fun exercise. Plus, there may be some funding opportunities and at least some of the best program could be accomplished.

Can sport teach science about excellence ? – 2

Can we create a training program for science ?

In sport, there are specific skills and it is fairly easy to create related training drills for improvement. Plus, sports don’t usually dramatically change in a short time. Hockey players don’t suddenly have to learn how to swim. But scientific research techniques are always mutating. My mad wet lab skills from 2003 are probably obsolete for 2011. What skills would we want to improve in a training program ?

Many people have written about the skills needed as a scientist, including those who contributed to this post at the  PostDoc Forum. My quick list :

  • critical thinking and planning skills to develop good research questions
  • good hands to do the work
  • writing skills to communicate the work
  • teamwork/people skills to collaborate and manage staff
  • excitement to keep going (drive)
  • work ethic to show up even when it sucks (discipline)

As you can see, most of the list is about talent but those are the things that can be improved. The drive and discipline are internal but we may be able to help students find ways to cultivate these traits.

How do you set up a training program for these skills? Is it math and engineering competitions? Science fairs? Doing experiments like the elementary students who published their work on bees?

Can sport teach science about excellence ?

Science knowledge has improved sport performance in many ways. New training and recovery programs plus advances in equipment have led to new heights of achievement. Is it time for science to learn from sport?

When I was considering grad school, a mentor told me:

A working scientist needs to be 2 of these 3: smart, lucky, and hardworking. A successful scientist works hard and is smart enough to create luck by recognizing opportunities.

I remembered this conversation when talking with my friend who is a professional hockey player about his career. He said that to get to the NHL, a player needs: talent, discipline, drive, and the support from family and friends. Success in hockey sounds a lot like success in science – could science take lessons in training from hockey?

Career Journeys in Hockey and Science

In Canada, there is a ‘farm system’ of hockey. Players with talent are recognized early and given opportunities to play in competitive leagues. As they progress, the options require more dedication and many players leave home in their early teens to play for the best teams. Scouts for pro hockey watch these leagues for talent and some players will enter various junior leagues where NHL teams recruit players.

Do you see any parallels with science training? We work hard and there are drop-outs at each stage (BSc, MSc, PhD, post-doc, etc.) plus many of us go to new cities to train. A few will become a tenured professor. As in hockey, many are happy to step down at an earlier stage, using their skills in related careers.

While talking with my hockey friend, I was stuck by the support of the community in his childhood training. Should we do something similar for budding scientists?

Moving beyond ‘interest in science’

There are many programs to spark an interest in science. I’ve been involved in several programs over the past decade and am a big believer in outreach programs. But many of these programs are too limited – they initiate excitement or students complete one challenge but there isn’t long term support. Students who have an interest may have nowhere to go with this excitement.

Why is pregnancy stigmatized in academia ?

A fellow female scientist recently asked me to have lunch. But, she was insistent that our rendezvous point be located in a restaurant several blocks from campus. In an attempt to give her the benefit of the doubt, I tried to reason that she was sick of the cafeteria food, which is quite understandable. But, I knew full well that the news she was to deliver was that she was to deliver.

It was a hush hush conversation and when I see her on campus, we always move to a remote-ish location as to keep our voices out of earshot. Apparently, it would be bad for her peers to learn of the embryonic incubator that is her womb. But why is this the case? She is not the only scientist I know who had gone through great lengths to “hide” her pregnancy until it was impossible.

I just don’t get it. A (wanted) pregnancy is supposed to be celebrated, not frowned upon. While I can understand the desire to hold off on making the big announcement until the second trimester when the chance of miscarriage is significantly reduced, I don’t understand the negative association. Even I felt weird and guilty when letting my boss know that I would be growing a fetus inside of my body and I am all gung ho about female reproductive rights, etc., etc., etc.

Perhaps I am being superficial or self-righteous, but feeling the need to hide a pregnancy based on a fear that it will affect your credibility is just plain stupid. And it just seems like these feelings can often be traced back to some dickhead with a lot of seniority and a “traditional” belief system.

That’s all I got with this one. If you can weigh in with your experiences, feel free. I am interested in hearing how others have experienced this issue.