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.

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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.

Short annotations about librarians

On a lark the other day I clicked on the tweets from some my most recent blog posts. I noticed a lot of non-librarians on the tweet activity. This is great – it was part of the reason I decided to blog on the Science 3.0 site and is a great example of John Dupuis’ concept of stealth librarianship in action.

So I got to thinking – perhaps many of these people wouldn’t know much about us from a few blog posts, tweets, Slideshare presentations, and bio information in Linked In. This is assuming, of course, that all of us use these tools, which we don’t.

So in the spirit of the great independent movie, 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould, here’s a little more about our quirky profession. (Annotations, if you don’t see them often, are the hallmark of our profession. We use them all the time, whether they’re really needed or not.)

1. We have a lot of strong opinions about ebooks and how they should be made available. (#hcod)

2. Many of us have dumped out a bag of M&Ms (or animal crackers, or Hershey’s assorted miniatures) and analyzed the different constituents by size / frequency of occurrence/intactness.

3. To entertain ourselves we may repeat the exercise in #2 as often as necessary with other items or later with a different bag of the same food.

4. We will meet at any time, for any reason, distribute minutes and then at the next meeting discuss them again, in case anyone has any questions.

5. We will find a way to create a form for anything, no matter how minor the information needed.

6. We will find a way to make discussion of editing/updating said form last for an entire meeting.

7. We will find a way to never stop using said form, just in case the information is needed in the future.

8. If there are more than three of us in a room and there is document at hand, one or more in the group will be making wordsmithing corrections simultaneously.

9. If said wordsmithing activity is occurring, at least one conversation will discuss the placement of Harvard commas, punctuation within quotation marks, and how to handle a quotation with a grammatical error.

10. In said discussions in #9, there will strong opinions on each conversation and part of the meeting will be needed to make a compromise on usage.