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2004-2005 Brown Bag Discussion of "Science's Audiences"

April 29, 2005
Al Albano (BMC Physics), Amy Bug (Swarthmore Physics), and
Anne Dalke (BMC English, Feminist and Gender Studies)

What's New in Gender and Science?

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum


Last January, Larry Summers went to a conference on the problems of diversifying the science and engineering workforce, and offered his best guess

  1. that the largest phenomenon is the general clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' desires for high power and high intensity,
  2. that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of...variability of intrinsic aptitude,
  3. which are reinforced by lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.
As president of Harvard, Larry Summers was in no position be that provocative, much less to lead that conversation in a productive direction. But in this brown bag series, we can be productive, provocative, and frank with one another about these issues--hence this session. Anne thought it might be useful for us to review together the most recent research on gender differences in cognition; she distributed copies both of a bibliography on that topic and the most recent Scientific American article on the significant differences in the architecture and activity in male and female brains. But her own interests (and her notions about the most productive conversations) do not lie there. In response to a question two weeks ago, about "whether science might ...'tease out' the influences of nature and nature so people would know which characteristics were theirs because they were born male or female," Evelyn Fox Keller said she wondered

"why there should be so much enthusiasm for the idea" that people are born, not made... there is "nothing special" about birth as a line of demarcation in development, since even in the womb environment affects how genes are expressed. "When we talk about innate and acquired it is rarely clear where to draw the line...and where to draw the line is rarely stable."" (Cornelia Dean, "Evelyn Fox Keller: Scientist at Work. Theorist Draw Into Debate 'That Will Not Go Away.'" The New York Times April 12, 2005. F2.)

Anne is frankly far less invested in increasing the numbers of female scientists than she is in the science literacy of everybody--and knows that means redoing/ redefining science education to engage the sorts of people (like herself) who had heretofore not been interested. It might mean, @ the far end, as Michelle Francl said in her blog on April 18, questioning the general assumption that doing great science requires 80 hours a week....why not...ask if we are confusing quantity of publication with quality? But it also means, @ this end, emphasizing the relation between science matters and culture matters, everywhere from introductory interdisciplinary courses to faculty and staff conversations such as this one. At Bryn Mawr this weekend, a Project Kaleidscope meeting is being held to discuss what it means to be liberally educated in the 21st century. Certainly this includes science literacy--which itself includes a healthy skepticism about the ability of science to offer us certain answers to the questions we have about the nature/predictability of the world. Here's the rub: how to get people invested in learning science, without expecting "final answers" from it?

From where Anne sits, as English professor, long-time feminist, and co-ordinator of the Feminist and Gender Studies Program here, the "problem of women scientists" looks like a small skirmish in a much larger battle, which has to do w/ the relationship of education to economic power and social authority. At Harvard, Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr, the cost of college is eroding the idea of a liberal arts education in favor of a pre-professional one. According to Rachel Donadio ("The Tempest in the Ivory Tower." The New York Times Book Review. March 27, 2005. 12-13), a new book by Richard Bradley called Harvard Rules (that "sets out to catalogue the flaws of Larry Summers") tells the story of a Harvard undergraduate, who keeps "thinking about a question one of his professors had put to him: "If you could either go here and get no diploma, or not go here and get the diploma, what would you do?'" It bothered the student "that he couldn't easily answer the question. It should bother the president of Harvard, too." And it should bother us. Along with Rachel Donadio, Anne thinks that the answer "is the difference between a great university a brand name." She's really not interested in brand names, and thinks the current conversation about women in science is badly tangled up in brand naming....

But Amy and Al have different takes on these matters. Amy's interest is in helping women feel invested in doing science, especially the "hard sciences: We can't run away, or check our bodies @ the door." Using a powerpoint presentation about Gender and Science, Amy referenced a recent ethnographic study of people with both undergraduate and graduate degrees in physics, examining what influenced them to feel (and be!) successful in their education. In the "spectrum of feminisms, physics is at the most parochial end of the scale: liberal feminists who want to get more women in the lab." Physics feminism is "pro-women," grounded in a conviction that women's value is equal to that of men. Why, then, "has the practice of physics been denied us? Or have we denied ourselves?" Amy showed data indicating that, while women now earn the majority of B.A.s, they have gone from earning 10 to 20 % of physics degrees (and leveled off), and from 0 to 20% of engineering degrees: "the "leaky pipeline hemorrhages at each junction."

Physics is "very retro, where other fields were in the '50s." The first international meeting on women and physics, held in 2001, acknowledged a societal dimension to the small number of women in physics: "we are not stupid." Looking at this information transnationally reveals some surprises. In some of the "politically most progressive" countries, like the Netherlands, for instance, only 9% of the physicists are female; in some of the least progressive, like Iran, 50% of the physicists are female (because so many of the men have been killed in battle, women are left in the academy). Why does the gender of the scientist matter? There are "deficit" and "difference" theories; there are also cultural explanations, such as physics as a "culture of no culture" (=a place for nerds, with no social skills), or "combat physics," ruled by Mertonian norms. The shadow of medieval academia still lurks in physics classes, which engage in a lot of "spoon-feeding" and are very "old school" in their focus on "received knowledge." In Has Feminism Changed Science?, Londa Schiebinger points out that physics IS hard--epistemologically (with its many symbolic links to maleness), ontologically (w/ its focus on hands-on experience of "hard little things"), and didactically: introductory physics classes function as "weeder-courses," where many women experience a loss of confidence--and decide they don't want such a demanding lifestyle.

Can feminism do more than open our eyes to these problems? There are female-friendly classes and labs, well-designed research experiences which involve a "spiral of curricular reforms," beginning with teaching the old curriculum, noticing the absence of women, identifying an agenda that includes acknowledging the barriers to women, incorporating famous women into the syllabus...but (although these changes are possible to implement), these are the "M&M's of the curriculum, not the nourishing part." Is the addition of such material appropriate for a hard science like physics? Is this all we can do? "Female-friendly" strategies in teaching involve re-conceptualizing one's work as teaching to everyone, not just those aiming for physics as a profession; long lectures taken from textbooks "do no one any good." It's okay to call these techniques "female-friendly" or "minority-friendly," because women and minorities have been steered away from physics. But these techniques are the best way to teach anything to anyone. They are the techniques to draw on if we want everyone to be scientifically literate.

An increasing number of women in physics "can get it" across the barrier of "authoritarian teaching styles." This may have to do with the direction from which they come to the material. An interesting psychological study distinguishes between those who do well in the subject (a way of saying, "Is it interested in me?") vs. those who are interested in it for some other goal. There is a gender component to these differences: classically, it is guys who are interested "in the stuff for the stuff's stake," while women are conventionally those who pursue physics "for a purpose" beyond the discipline. As teachers of physics, we need to learn not to privilege one type of interest over another, not to turn our focus on the theoretician rather than the experimentalist, or on either instead of the clinician. The replication of ourselves, as academic scientists, is not the primary function of our science departments. ("If I don't get tenure @ one of the top 30 schools, I am an abject failure." "If I can't replicate myself, what is the point of my life?" ) We need to learn to teach not only to an audience of pre-professionals, but anticipating instead that our students will be going to a "wide array of placees."

The success of women physicists may have to do with "how we teach" them. There are lots of ways into science, multiple pathways into, through and out of the material; a broaderrange of acceptable behavior might be instituted in the culture. In Amy's Swarthmore seminar on "Gender and Science," for instance, the women had a "sense of entitlement" to the material; men had "more @ stake" when they spoke. This was the reverse of what happens in her physics classes, where men seem to "start ahead," and to feel entitled. Perhaps the difference is less the material of physics than the "authority-style teaching" that it conventionally uses. Have women always been "smart enough not to put up with this," while men have been more prone not only to tolerate but to mimic it?

Al suggested that the success of women in physics may have less to do with "what people do" than with the classroom environment; "when a guy is in a classroom, the women become deferential." A disproportion of women scientists are graduates of women's colleges. Is there a comfort-level associated with a certain number of women in the class: not being different, not being the "only one with social skills"? Al followed with a "case study," and the starting point for questions: a NOVA profile of BMC alum and nanotechnologist Naomi Halas . Discussion began with observations about why Halas was portrayed as "digging in the dirt" (a "male" activity?) Why, in her classes, do the "guys sit around the table, the women on the outside"? And why did she "take offense at being thought in charge of the coffee"? (What's wrong with that?)

How much of the physics curricular reform movement has made it to Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr? In a big class, it's usual that only 15 of 60 will speak. It's a "victory" to get students to talk with one another, and then ask someone to speak for the group--that way, the thinking of each student can be represented, even if their voice is "getting out there via someone else." It's an even greater victory if a student will speak out in defense of a less-popular answer. What is essential here is the concept that students are actively engaged in producing knowledge. If you can't contribute to the answer, why bother? A caution was also offered against "fake Socratic dialogue," the pretense that students are actually contributing to the answer, when what is really going on is that they are being made to feel that they are--when the outcome has already been decided.

There are a range of ways of teaching science's "answers": maintaining that students "can't possibly know stuff," teaching them that there are multiple different ways to arrive at "one right answer," teaching them that several different answers are acceptable (to what number of significant digits?), helping them understand that one can go forward without exact measurements (=without the "right" answer!). (Some examples of the latter: how can you measure the height of a building using a barometer? How can you measure the height of Mt. Everest using a thermometer? Is it easier to drink from a straw on Mt. Everest or in Tahiti? Is it better to bike or take the car?)

The discussion closed with commentary by a number of students who identified themselves as "science majors, but not scientists." In the "weeder courses, the whole lecture thing never worked" for one student, who felt that "being lectured to was like having a book read to her, cover to cover: you can't slow it down, you can't stop, you can't ask questions--and if you don't understand the details, you can't put it all together." Another student had a very different story: she "liked being lectured to, liked knowing what was going on, liked seeing her grades posted next to the lower grades of her classmates." She also asked (a rhetorical question), "What would life be like, if I didn't know biology?" Another student thought that "teaching physics is interesting, because it's so big," but it's also "so hard, because people can ask you about the smallest thing." When it wasn't well taught, it "didn't intrigue, didn't seem related to my life." But it "does matter: there are lots of ideas, and they explain so much." Yet another student said that she "made it through the weed-out classes because I was curious about the physical world; many of my classmates were not; they were more interested in their internal lives." Having explored the "infinite field of possibilities" opened up by spiritual experiences, yet another student came to Bryn Mawr already thinking of herself as a quantum physicist; how well will that prior understanding translate into success as a physics major here?

Further discussion of such questions has continued in the on-line forum, and is invited to continue further.

This series on "science's audiences" has concluded for the spring semester. It will resume under a new rubric in the fall. Stay tuned!

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