Monthly Archives: October 2013

Tell the Minneapolis Star Tribune: Don’t promote climate change denial

This from The Big E at MPP:

The LA Times recently instituted a policy change: they no longer print letters to the editor from climate change deniers. The LA Times believes that peer-reviewed work by established scientists have overwhelmingly proven that our planet is warming and this is leading to significant climate change.

And those scientists have provided ample evidence that human activity is indeed linked to climate change. Just last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — a body made up of the world’s top climate scientists — said it was 95% certain that we fossil-fuel-burning humans are driving global warming. The debate right now isn’t whether this evidence exists (clearly, it does) but what this evidence means for us.

The LA Times started this and I think that the Minneapolis Star Tribune should join them.

As recently as October 22nd, the Strib printed a letter from a climate denier crank from California.

On October 14th, they published an op-ed by former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson. Gerson isn’t exactly a denier, instead he’s trying to vilify the messengers and, via ad hominem attacks, show that climate change and global warming are not believable.

Generally, the Strib allows Republicans to tell any old lie they want to on their editorial page. But it’s time to tell them to put an end to the anti-science malarkey the climate deniers want printed.

Please sign the petition asking the Minneapolis Star Tribune to join the LA Times in no longer publishing climate denier letters…

PLEASE CLICK HERE, READ THE DETAILS, GET THE LINKS, AND SIGN THE DAMN PETITION!!!!

Chaos in the classroom and how to replace it with learning

Can we replace Classroom Chaos with Learning-Centered Education?

K–12 education can be better. One of the most effective changes that could be made is to reduce the amount of chaos in the classroom and replace it with learning.

I spend several hours a year in various schools giving presentations on Anthropology, Evolution, Brainzz, and other topics. Plus, I know some teachers and have taught seminars specifically for teachers. For these reasons I have a sense of what happens in high school (and to a lesser extent middle school and elementary school) classrooms. What I am about to describe – “classroom chaos” – is found in every school that I know of, and it is appalling.

You might think that classroom chaos is the product of out of control students, or class sizes that are too large, or escaped animals (all of which are problems, of course). But that is not what I’m talking about. The following is a short list of the causes of classroom chaos:

  1. The Principal
  2. The Yearbook
  3. The Congress of the United States of America
  4. State Legislatures
  5. The College Board and other similar entities
  6. The Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion

The following is a complete list of entities that DO NOT cause classroom chaos:

  1. Teachers
  2. Students
  3. Guest Speakers

What are some examples of events that when they occur cause classroom chaos?

Imagine that a teacher is five minutes away from the end of the third class for the day (i.e., the same “prep” i.e. “AP Chemistry” being taught three times). The intercom system comes on because the principal has decided to make a school wide announcement about something. Everyone sits and listens to the principal and then class ends. The students in that class don’t get the learning that happened in the other classes for that last five minutes, which depending on the class might be very important. Also, the teacher is left to figure out how to adjust for this, which can be difficult because the three classes for this prep are now out of sync.

Imagine that all of the sophomores in the school are scheduled at the same time to take a test offered by a major testing agency. They must take the test as part of their overall high school-to-college tracking. So, sophomores, as part of their effort to demonstrate their learning, don’t get to learn what the other students (who are not sophomores) were learning in their mixed grade class that morning, and the teachers have to figure out a way of adjusting for this, possibly by spinning wheels for a while. But it may be quite difficult to make that adjustment, and it may just be the case that those sophomores have lost a learning opportunity. Ironically, that lack of learning may show up later in other standardized tests that they will, in the future, be pulled out of class to take.

Standards-related state-wide or national tests are scheduled for an arbitrary time of year that has little to do with when students learn the material being tested. This disrupts the entire schedule at a large scale. It is very common, for example, that an AP exam is scheduled nation-wide by the College Board to occur near the middle of the third of three terms in a school year for a particular school district. This means that either the students take the test several weeks after the end of their AP class, or before the class has ended, rendering the final weeks of the term moot in relation to that AP test. This actually costs students and their families money because AP tests are a way to avoid paying for some expensive college classes the students will be required to take later, and the grade one earns on the AP test determines whether or not the student can opt out of the required class. Also, the test itself takes up valuable teaching time. Certainly, taking an AP test is a very worthwhile endeavour, but state-wide standards-related tests are not worth the student’s time. Those tests are not there to challenge or educate the student, and are generally not used to evaluate the student, but rather, to measure and control the quality of the schools the students are in. These tests are the byproduct of a system of education that knows something about the problems it has but tends to find the clumsiest way to solve those problems. More to the point, the cost paid to improve education is unfairly borne by the students and teachers, and the cost is paid as lost learning.

There are a lot of tests that students are required or encouraged to take, including (depending on the state and district) a PLAN test, PSAT test, a state-wide test such as the MCA given in Minnesota, and AP tests), so the total amount of time taken away can be rather large. I’m not arguing against testing. That would be a different topic. But even if we assume that evaluation is important (and this could be the case) evaluation should not be done at the cost of damaging the learning environment.

In many schools, three or four students in every single classroom in every single class all day have to leave to get their ID photos taken, visit a guidance counselor for a mandated meeting, or get their yearbook picture taken. In one school I know of, over a period of several days each term, students are called via the public address system in small numbers based on the alphabetical position of their last name to attend a group guidance meeting, so for the entire day virtually every class is randomly interrupted and at any given moment there are students missing from the classroom. Imagine the equivalent disruption caused by the student. For example, imagine that two or three students put their ear buds in and ignore the teacher for half the class. They would not get away with that. Why does the yearbook or the administration get away with bringing students out of the classroom randomly like this?

In some schools, all the senior are excused from one class so that a senior picture can be taken out on the lawn. Some students leave their classes behind for extended periods for college visits at a career center. In many cases students are allowed to leave their last class early for extracurricular activities, such as debate team or sports. Then, there are the fire drills, tornado drills, and lockdown drills. (Corresponding to that sort of disruption, I could have added “Terrorists, spree killers, and arsonists” to the above list of causal agents!)

Pepfests shorten the schedule so that students can cram into a less than adequately sized auditorium to hear each grade level try to yell louder than the other (which really does nothing but create division between the grades), watch silly games like relays where kids hop in gunney sacks across a slippery floor, all while students increasingly show riotous behavior that quite frankly intimidates many teachers. (Note to parents: you should be able to send a note to the school excusing your offspring from this sort of event. Check it out.)

Less chaotic but still a time sink are shortened schedules or substitutes employed to bring teachers out of the classroom. Some schools have a “late start” day where all the class schedules are shortened so that some regular event like an advisory meeting can happen in the morning. Or, teachers are pulled from classes en masse and replaced with substitutes so they can attend to administrative functions. This category of disruption is actually a better solution to classroom chaos in some cases because all of the students and teachers are affected similarly and simultaneously, but it is still the case that when adding up days of instruction over the year, this should not be ignored.

In most schools, the pledge of allegiance must be recited every day at the beginning of one class, meaning that for this class, one of several in a prep, is always short. That’s like every fourth car in the car wash not getting it’s back end washed, or every fourth customer at the grocery store getting one item lifted from their packages on the way out the door. If it was really a “pledge” the students should be fine taking it once, perhaps on the first day of first grade. (Not to mention the fact that in many classroom many students are not American citizens, so pledging to the US flag may be a felony in their own country, but I digress….)

I’ll leave it to the reader to match the above list of causal agents to their various chaos-causing disruptions.

If we count the disruption for standards based tests, AP tests, and other non-test-taking disruptions, far more learning time is lost to classroom chaos than to snow days in a northern state during a very bad winter. School boards will have meetings at which they’ll belly-ache about snow days, and whether or not to extend a school year because there were too many of them, but the numerous systematic yet chaotic disruptions approved by the the school boards or required by the state are never or rarely discussed as a negative impact on learning. Also, consider this: Most, probably all, states mandate a certain amount of classroom time per year, but the policy makers who put these rules in place seem oblivious to the fact that there is no cap on the amount of classroom disruption. If, indeed, a particular state happens to mandate a minimum number of days of “learning” (instead of just a minimum number of “school days”) then there may be grounds for some sort of lawsuit. A state that mandates 180 days of learning time (explicitly stated as such) but then mandates several days of interruption of that time may be liable for breaking its own rules.

I teach college. Nobody interrupts my class but me. The idea of an administrator showing up in my classroom and making an announcement would be outrageous. I determine when the tests are scheduled and the manner of their administration. Over many years of teaching, I’ve had the police show up to talk to (or in some cases, take away) a student about a half dozen times. Even then, the police officers know to wait patiently until after I’m done with class before they move in. This happened to me just a couple of weeks ago. The police, these days, seem empowered to demand your ID on the street, search your house or car with rather bogus “probable cause,” have by their policies have de facto made dissent and assembly illegal, and have taken to using numerous novel forms of violence such as pepper spary and tasers on ordinary citizens exercising their constitutional rights. But they don’t mess with a teacher in the classroom … in college. But in high school? Anything goes.

Many of the reasons for the disruptions I’ve mentioned above are valid. Perhaps we need tests. Extracurricular activities are good, I assume. Advising is important and, if anything, there should be more of it. College visits are probably a good thing (though the methods colleges use to market themselves to students are highly questionable, but that’s also a topic for another time). But there is a problem with the way all of these things are implemented. It is is indubitably and demonstrably true that learning in the classroom is prioritized last and everything else is prioritized above classroom time. Students are not very subtly being taught a very significant negative lesson, or perhaps several such lessons. Learning is not as important as administration and bureaucracy. Learning does not require or involve continuity or focus. Society claims, and tells the students, that education is very important, yet learning in the classroom, a central part of education, is clearly not a high priority. This teaches the students that a central pillar of society is built on a lie. Educators and administrators would very much like society to respect education more than it does, to hold it in high regard and view it as a funding priority. This may be a difficult argument to make if we demonstrate to our students on a nearly daily basis for over a decade that everything is more important than learning. It should not be a surprise that so many citizen-taxpayers are cynical about education. The system of education was cynical about their learning day after day and year after year.

What is the solution? It is probably not possible to fully address these problems, but I have two specific suggestions that I think would go a long way. These suggestions are general and would need to be implemented thoughtfully and creatively.

First, make the classroom a sacred space, and classroom time sacred time. Those PA systems should only be used for emergencies. Only the teacher should be allowed to decide what happens in that room. Students are required to make the case that they have to pee, and thus get a bathroom pass; everyone else in or near a school needs to make the case for disrupting the classroom, and the expectation should be that they’ll be routinely denied. This may require that schools change the way they arrange their schedules. For example, guidance counselors could routinely have a late day. If classes are run from 7:30 onwards, guidance counselors can start their day at 9:30 and concentrate almost all of their activities that directly involve students during the time after classes are over. This will require creative solution for busing but educators and administrators are creative people. Figure it out. Another pragmatic solution is to routinely include a study period in each student’s schedule. This is the time that the student can carry out many of the various activities for which they are typically called out of class. This will require administrations to change the way they serve those student’s needs. Instead of students being called out of class for their ID photo, they are required to go to the photo ID office during their study period. And so on.

With respect to testing and the disruption this causes, large scale changes will need to be made. If we decide as a society (at the national or state level) that there will be tests given across many school districts, then we need to end our worship of “home rule” whereby every school district determines its own schedule. School boards may be unaware of this, but major calendric events such as Thanksgiving and the various religious holidays such as Christmas actually happen on the same exact schedule in all states, counties, towns, and districts across this great land of ours. Summer is simultaneous, it turns out, no matter where you are in the Northern Hemisphere. Child labor laws have almost entirely eliminated the requirement to let youngsters out of school to help with the seasonal harvest or work in the mills while the hydro power is strongest with the spring floods. We can have a national (or at least, state-wide) schedule, and in so doing, we can have things like AP tests and other tests administered in a sensible way. In addition, some tests can be given multiple times. It is difficult and costly to create multiple versions of a given test each year, but it is not impossible to have two or three AP tests to accommodate two or three different schedule paradigms among which school districts choose nation-wide.

Sports are a problem. Notice how many disruptions occur to classroom time. Are there similar disruptions that occur to sporting schedules? I don’t think so. It is apparent that sports trumps learning. This, I suspect, is a funding and community relations effect. When was the last time an irate parent beat up a principal because his child did not get to make up a physics lab she missed during an illness? I can’t remember that ever happening. When was the last time a parent assaulted a coach or threatened another parent over a perceived bad call on the playing field? I believe this happens almost daily in this country, now and then in a manner sufficiently spectacular to become a form of newsertainment. This prioritization of sports reaches across high school and college and life in general, with some high schools viewed as sources for top amateur athletes for various colleges, and those colleges viewed as sources for top professional athletes. Students with high athletic potential are each unlikely to become a professional athlete, and if so, are unlikely to do well in that profession, given the severe culling that happens as we breed or gladiators. But those students may be given a pass on their learning anyway, increasing the chance that they do poorly in life so that a very few may take the very important role in making a lot of other people rich and/or happy.

The fact that this appalling system of trafficking and exploitation also takes a higher priority in high schools is unacceptable. But even more unacceptable is the fact that sports takes a higher priority over education in high school than it does in college. In high school, a teacher is at the mercy of the sports teams, with students being excused (not by the teacher but by the administration) from class, and in many cases, being away from all of their classes especially if their team is doing well and enters playoffs. (Which is not necessarily a bad thing because it represents student success in an area important to them.) I’ve taught at a handful of different colleges including two with major commitments to sports. In the college setting, the athletic schedules are managed in such a way that they don’t interfere with the classroom schedule (though some classes, i.e. those taught late in the afternoon, are not taken by many athletes) and it is possible to not even know that you have an athlete in your class, with two exceptions. First, it is the case in both high school and college that when a particular team does very well and enters playoffs, they may be gone for several days. This is probably not avoidable, but if most of these other problems were fixed, it would be tolerable. Second, as a college teacher, I am actually asked to give permission to the student to continue engagement in athletics! If you don’t do well in class, you can’t play on the field. I’m asked, politely, by the administration or individual students to certify on a form that each athlete in my class is doing well enough academically to participate in sports.

So, the first thing to do to handle this problem is to prioritize education, learning in the classroom, the classroom time itself, the teacher as the effective monarch of the classroom, and then re-examine all the other needs from guidance sessions to photo shoots to sports and, especially, tests to have those needs be met in a way that does not cause classroom chaos. Figure it out.

The second thing to do is simpler but very important: Apologize. Humble the disruptions in relation to the learning. Stop assuming that anything the administration of a school, or a school board, or a state legislature, or any other entity wants to happen can happen at the expense of learning in the classroom, and when such a thing must happen at the expense of learning in the classroom, the entity causing the chaos must do so in a contrite manner and in parallel with a sincere effort to not let it happen as much, or at all, in the future. In other words, change the culture.

New Stanley

As instructed, I arrived at the New Stanley Hotel, in downtown Nairobi, at just before 11:00 AM, to meet Pat Soffer, primatologist. Willoughby didn’t have to tell me about the fish and chips at the hotel’s cafe; I’d eaten here many times. The Thorn Tree was a pretty standard meeting place in Nairobi. A block or so from the Hilton, at the end of the main downtown street, a short walk from the central government buildings, across from a central bus station, it was a slightly pricey but reasonable hotel with an inexpensive, leisurely outdoor restaurant open early in the morning for breakfast and coffee, all day for lunch and dinner, and late into the evening for drinks.

A giant tree…a thorn tree as it happens…grew from the middle of the outdoor eating area, and around the tree was built a bulletin board. The bulletin board was mainly for travelers and tourists to hang notes for other travelers and tourists. A typical scenario might be for a couple of backpackers to cross paths in Malawi or Tanzania or Uganda, both thinking they’d be passing through Nairobi in a month or so. Then, when either would arrive in town, they would search for a note from the other and put up one of their own, and in so doing, sometimes reconnect in the Tourist Capital of East Africa. Among these numerous mostly unanswered missives, other more interesting but less overt messaging would also take place. A small but steady amount of arms, drugs, and intelligence trafficking was facilitated by notes on the Thorn Tree’s bulletin board. And, now and then, people organizing expeditions into the Congo would meet up here.

So on my arrival at the Cafe, I went right to the tree to look for a note from Pat Soffer, prepared to write my own. I realized I had no idea what my contact looked like, and the restaurant was full of westerners any one of which could be Pat Soffer, Primatologist. Seeing nothing, I took out a note pad, located a blank page and penned:

“Looking for Pat, Mutual Interest in Monkeys”

And I was just about to pin this to the board when a woman who had been standing next to me also looking at the bulletin board took a step closer and snatched the paper from my hand. “Welcome to Nairobi,” she said, gesturing toward a table already set for tea, along the back wall. “you’re early.”

Pat Soffer struck me right away as someone who’d been around the block more than once and who knew how to take care of herself. Darkly tanned with a lot of split ends in her black hair, brown eyes, broad shouldered, trim and muscular, I had the vague impression that she was of Greek ancestry, though her last name did not match. For just a second I was surprised she was a girl. “Pat” is the ultimate western non-gendered name. Surprised but glad. I was tired of working with that special Intrepid Explorer Ego that usually accompanies western Y-chromosomes in the bush.

So we talked. Pat confirmed that Dieter was her advisor in undergraduate school. She had a vaguely defined plan to get a Master’s degree at Oxford, then return to Dieter’s institution to work under him towards a PhD, but by that time there had been some difficulties and for some reason or another Dieter was no longer taking on female graduate students. Other than the one he had just married, that is. Yes, it was true; all the complexities of high school relationships returned but with a vengeance in graduate school, especially in Anthropology where fieldwork complicated things. Pat ended up getting her PhD elsewhere, and spent most of the time since those days off in the field somewhere.

Dieter Phillips had asked her to consider joining him on an expedition to the Eastern Congo, where we were now heading, under the condition that she, Pat, would only be in the field at the same time as Dieter’s wife, at the new Mrs. Phillip’s request. Pat had no problem with that. She explained it this way to me: “Dieter Phillips was not my type. Phyllis, on the other hand, was, physically; but not emotionally or mentally. She was a child. But I would have enjoyed the window dressing and had fun playing with the dynamic, especially if it would have given Dieter a hard time. I wasn’t really happy about being rejected from my choice of graduate school because of marital insecurity by two emotionally retarded latter day hipsters, which is how I regarded the two of them.”

“So your interest in South Dakota was not for the opportunity to work with the great Dieter Phillips?” I inquired.

“Hell no. I wanted access to their primate skeletal collection. It is the largest and best documented in the world. At the time, that’s what I wanted to do…measure bones. In the end, I’m glad it didn’t work out. I live in the field now. You know what I’m talking about.”

I certainly did. If you spend enough time in the field, not being in the field feels strange.

“Let me ask you, then, what was the point of Phillips” expedition, the one you didn’t go on? Why didn’t you go, in the end, and what did he find? I’ve been told almost nothing about it, other than that I’m to help you.”

“Ah. I figured that. They were probably worried you would not come if you knew…”

I waited, now more intrigued than ever.

“Dieter Phillips was looking for a new species of primate, a kind of ape, called Sungudogo,” she said.

“He had evidence that it really existed and intended to document its presence, collect a few to bring back as specimens, and then get funding for a much larger project.”

“OK, that much I either knew from what they told me in Brussels, or inferred. Why would you NOT go on such a search? Even if Sungudogo did not exist, there are probably plenty of other primate-related things in the area you could have worked on.”

“Sungudogo is a gorilla no taller than this,” she said, as she held her hand about four feet off the ground.

“While knuckle walking?” I asked, “Four feet would be about right. you’re saying Sungudogo is a bit bigger than the average gorilla?”

“No,” she said, glancing at her hand and with a grin moving it a few inches to one side. “This tall. From the top of the table. While standing full height on its hind limbs.”

“What?” I said, wishing I hadn’t been sipping my tea at just that moment. “A two and a half foot tall gorilla?”

“Well,” she said. “You should have guessed from the name; “sungu” from ape or chimp and “dogo” for small, like the word “kidogo.” Small Ape. Sungudogo.”

“Yeah, I had noticed that, those two terms are used in a lot of languages in the area. But I didn’t think…” I thought for a moment. “Wait, is this why you didn’t join Phillips? Because Sungudogo is no more likely to exist than Bigfoot?”

“Exactly,” she said. “I told him that I’d be the first to join his second expedition!”

“So, they went off without you. How did they explain Sungudogo in the end? Was it a local totemic symbol, or some other sort of made up creature, or something lost in the translation, or what?”

“Ah…no, not exactly,” she said, that same wry grin returning to her lips.

“What then?”

“It exists,” she said, suddenly getting serious. “I’ve seen one.”

I stared. Waiting for the punchline.

“I think they killed Dieter.”

That was not the punchline I was looking for.

“Listen,” she said, leaning in close and moving my half finished cup of tea off to the side. “You are going to have to trust me on something,” now putting her hand on my forearm, as though what she was about to say might cause me to bolt.

I looked at her, and saw something in her eyes that caught my attention. Worry. Fear, maybe.

“There are a couple of things that have to be cleared up, very soon, before we can go forward with this expedition. I have been sworn to absolute secrecy and I can’t even tell you certain things.”

“That won’t do at all,” I replied, maybe a little too tersely. For that I earned a tighter grip on my forearm.

“I know,” she said. “This is where you have to trust me. We’re both going to Goma, Zaire. You know that place, right?”

“Only in as much as I live there when I’m in country and not on a job, sure.”

“Do you have a place there?”

“No,” I replied. “Not at the moment, I gave that up. I stay in a hotel. But yes, I know the place. I understand We’re going to points north of Goma, so that is where I assume we’ll start out. Arrange a vehicle, get supplies, maybe poke around for information, get our land legs.”

“Here’s what we need to do, Mallows. We’ll meet in Goma in a few days. I’ll supply the vehicle, I have access to a Land Rover. I need to make a stop and verify something and then, if all that works out, I can tell you everything I know. I promised to not tell anybody, you included, everything that I know until we are in country. We’ll talk in Goma in about a week.”

I don’t know exactly what made me trust her, but really, the cost was not high. If things didn’t work out, Goma was where I should be anyway. This is where the action was in mining and mercenary work. Once I got to Goma, even if Pat never showed up, I’d be fine. I gave a nod.

“Besides,” she said, seeing my nod and relaxing a little. “Goma’s where you would normally go this time of year anyway, since your job in Brussels is done.” Echoing my thoughts, knowing more about me than I thought she did, like everyone else I’d spoken to so far. She let go of my arm, reached out her hand for me to shake it, and as I did so, she stood. “See you in Goma in a week. I’ll send a telegraph to the
Pierre Hotel when I know my exact schedule. That’s the one you usually stay in, right?”

And without waiting for an answer, she turned and walked out of the Thorn Tree Cafe, took a right towards the Hilton and Government Center, and disappeared. …


Now available for only 99 cents! Cheap at half the price!

Nazis in North Dakota

This story is not getting the attention it probably deserves in national press. Which would be more than zero (I’ve not seen any coverage at all).

Rather than rehashing what has already been summarized elsewhere I’ll just point you to some sources:

The North Dakota Neo-Nazi Take-Over HAS ALREADY HAPPENED

The small town of Leith, North Dakota recently took center stage on social networking sites, even while most media outlets barely reported on the story getting all the buzz. A network of white supremacist groups had come together to purchase properties in the small town, so as to create a majority, using that to springboard into making a “whites only” town.

Leith, North Dakota Council Meeting INVADED by Neo-Nazis (Viewer Discretion Advised)

The Following News “RAW” Video Is Provided By The “GRANT COUNTY NEWS” And “CARSON PRESS” Of Elgin, North Dakota. The video contains “OFFENSIVE” language and “RACIST” remarks from a self-proclaimed “SKINHEAD – NEO NAZI” who invaded the Leith, North Dakota town council meeting on October 18, 2013!

Click through for details, but here’s the video. Turn the volume down. Action starts at 23 seconds or so, and it is pretty much the same crap all along until the last 20 seconds or so when it doesn’t get much more interesting.

But the whole thing is alarming, of course:

The evolution of four-winged birds

…When we look at living species (A and B) that we know shared a common ancestor resembling one of them (A), we can guess that the features seen in A evolved in steps more or less linearly to eventually resemble the corresponding features seen in B. For example, we think that chimpanzees and humans shared a common ancestor that resembled chimps a lot more than humans, and in fact, we consider living chimps to be a pretty close analog to this common ancestor. Chimp teeth are somewhat larger in relation to body size than human teeth, and human teeth have somewhat thicker enamel than chimp teeth. This might suggest that chimp-like teeth transformed over time, step by step, in a linear fashion, to become human-like … slightly smaller and somewhat thicker enameled … over evolutionary time.

That would be a reasonable hypothesis, but it would be wrong. When we look at the teeth found among fossil remains of human ancestors and their relatives, we clearly see that the creatures that arose form a chimp-like ancestor bore teeth are as different from both chimp and human teeth as one might see anywhere in the fossil record of mammals evolving over a few million years. …

Read all about it here in my latest post on 10,000 Birds.

Proper Relationships, Professional Contexts (or, who put the “men” in “mentoring?”)

Laura Helmuth has written what I think is one of the most important posts so far to emerge from the fray that is Bora Zivkovic’s: Don’t Be a Creep: Lessons from the latest terrible, sad, fascinating scandal in the science blogging world. Before getting to what I think is the most important part of her post, I want to first say what the most important overall lessons are, clearly, from this whole maneno, because they are different than the lesson Laura writes about:

1) Men behaving poorly in relation to women, in the context of power imbalances (but also without the power imbalance) is widespread to the extent that many women (meaning, guys, many of the women you personally know) are subjected to some kind of bad behavior or another on a regular basis, ranging from random out of the blue unwanted sexual attention to being placed in a position of needing to appease some man’s interests in order to be taken seriously or given the same access to opportunities as a man might get without socio-sexual extortion, and of course, worse. I am constantly astonished at the degree to which men who claim to be well informed about sexism and who claim, even, to be feminists are incredulous when confronted with personal stories such as “I get hit on by strangers every single day on the bus” or “I’ve gotten harassed in a professional context way more times than I can count … this month” etc. Such statements are too often assumed to be exaggerations. Also, harassment and unwanted sexual attention of this sort is often assumed by those who don’t experience it to be not that big of a deal. The truth is, how big of a deal it is for a person is a matter of that person’s experience, and I would guess, plus some two-digit number of percent to account for the fact that we humans are good at putting away a certain amount of bad experience for our psyches to use later against us. Indeed, many men view “unwanted sexual attention” as a good thing, something they themselves would like more of. That is called being clueless.

OK, this set of closely related facts did not emerge from the Bora thing, it was already there, but we are reminded to remind ourselves and each other of this. And, also not discovered over the last weekend but in need of restating and emphasis:

2) Women who are subject to sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior (of a wide range) … i.e., women … probably usually feel uncomfortable talking about these things, or for that matter, doing something about their own experiences. We should assume that a contributing factor in this discomfort is the widespread and incorrect writing off of the experience as either rare or not so bad (see number one above). So, when a woman does come forward with a well described very credible (and especially, verified by the other person in the deal, the harasser) the automatic reaction should be to support that woman in whatever way we can, minimally by accepting the person’s account of their own reaction, pain, or trouble. What it means to that person is what the thing was (plus the above cited mark-up, I assume), not what you or I or anyone else thinks it means.

But what was Laura’s special insight that I wanted to mention? It has to do with mentoring. Mentoring is considered very important in most professions, and in academia. The idea is that a young student, upper division college or graduate school, or a post doc who is on a particular career track, gets a mentor, an established professional who can help guide that person through the process of professional development, around the land mines, towards key objectives, etc. etc. This sounds like a good thing, and in fact, it is a good thing when it works. More notably, I think, in our current system it is demonstrably a bad thing when mentoring does not occur at all or is done poorly. Students and early stage professionals who, in our current system, either don’t really end up with a mentor, or who are mentored by a bad mentor, can suffer and do poorly.

The fact that the absence of mentoring or poor mentoring has negative consequences naturally and perhaps reasonably leads us to conclude that mentoring is good and there should be more of it, and mentors should be trained better to do a better job. And that is not entirely wrong.

But, maybe we should be looking at this very differently. Laura Helmuth says:

We glibly advise people starting out in business to find a mentor, to identify a successful, established, generous person in your field and somehow get her to help you become her.

This is terrible advice. It perpetuates old-boy networks, wastes time that early career people could spend actually doing their work, and tells them they are only as good as their contacts and charm. Young people, don’t look for a mentor. Listen to and learn from people who have more experience, but don’t hitch your wagon to their star. Just do your job well.

Now, you established people, listen up. You will occasionally meet younger people who go out of their way to speak with you at professional events, ask you interesting and sometimes personal questions, and hang on your every word. Those are not puppy-dog, crushed-out eyes staring up at you. These are eyes hungry for a professional break. These people are not trying to sleep with you. They are trying to get hired by you.

Interesting.

I’ve always taken mentoring very seriously, but Laura indirectly points out that mentoring and its value is received knowledge not sufficiently examined with a critical eye. I’ve paid attention to and analyzed the mentoring I received (or didn’t) and I think my own experience actually follows Larua’s model pretty well. Irv DeVore was my longest-term mentor, and he was a great colleague, a close friend, and helped me a lot, and he was a good mentor, but when it came to my research, mostly hands off. Rather, he helped me get grants. Informally, Nancy DeVore (Irv’s wife) was my writing mentor, and she is the second toughest and best editor I’ve ever worked with. I’m not sure if she ever actually slapped me but I sure felt like it a few times. DeVore followed the Helmuth Model in that he handed me off to others who were more expert in the areas of research and methods that I needed, and actually, he didn’t hand me off, I went and found them. As a result of this, my PhD thesis was signed by Ofer Bar-Yosef, Israeli archaeologist, Irv DeVore, primatologist, Mark Pagel, statistician and evolutionary theorist, and John Yellen, ethnoarchaeologist and head of Anthropolgoy at NSF. Pretty nice range of dudes (and yes, all dudes, all good ol’ boys but mostly the good kind, I’m sure). Of these people I regard DeVore, Bar-Yosef and Pagel as having been mentors. John was a colleague and outside reader (we did not live in the same city or even state). After graduate school, no other individuals who could ever be called a mentor for me ever did anything along these lines that was of any use, especially at the junior faculty level, aside from continued support from Irv, of course.

I think and hope (or convince myself it is true!) that I’ve been been a pretty good mentor for some of my students. But what follows Larua’s model is the degree to which my mentoring relationship with each student has been completely different from every other student. There have been students with whom I’ve worked intensively on both writing and research, spending hours going over stuff and working on things together. With other students, my role has been almost entirely to represent the student at faculty meetings and write recommendations, but otherwise just get an update now and then from the student (so I could do those two things well). In the latter case, the mentee was typically being advised on research by one or more other individuals more closely involved in the particular work being done, generally at research facilities elsewhere (on campus or beyond) as needed. I’ve taken the job of mentoring seriously, and been fairly thoughtful about it, and consciously tried to find the best solution for each student. But, and this proves Laura’s point, there has been absolutely no relationship as far as I can tell between the amount of direct involvement I’ve had with a particular student, vs the student assembling a longer list of colleagues to help in research and career development, and those student’s success or happiness. In other words, a solid and intense one-on-one mentoring relationship did not produce the best results. There was no clear difference between one-on-one mentoring and students finding a collection of colleagues to work with (my advice being sometimes but often not useful in doing that).

The best advice I’ve probably given students, and I’ve given this to all my students since I started any kind of advisory role as a freshly minted PhD, is this: Advice (including this advice I’m giving you now) is not necessarily worth anything. Advice is a reaction someone else in the world has to something you did, something you showed them, or something they observed. Understand their advice in that context, and use it, modify it, or ignore it as you see fit. I think this advice might correspond to what Laura is saying. Develop relationships with a range of colleagues (many of whom will be your senior when you are starting out) and do what makes sense. For the potential mentor, take your role in doing the same thing; help your students develop multiple contacts and relationships with both individuals and other entities (labs, institutions, etc.) as needed.

Obviously Laura’s advice is meant to help mainly young women to avoid finding themselves in power differential fueled bad mentee positions. But this approach works more broadly than that. The smaller number of students with whom I worked closest are those with whom I’m still in most regular contact and in some cases whom I consider friends, or for whom I’m still playing a similar role. Indeed, I’m writing five letters of recommendation for jobs or grants over the next two weeks and they are all for students with whom I worked closest. Meanwhile I know some of my other students are moving from post-doc to junior faculty, or beyond, or getting grants, mainly using recommendations from those specific experts they worked with while working on their degrees, because those are the people in the subfields and the most appropriate recommenders.

And bringing it back to the first two points made above, before we started talking about mentoring, as Laura says, “recognize that you have a tremendous responsibility to take your mentees seriously. … you have a lot of power in comparison, even if you have just a few years more experience or feel like a cog yourself. Be respectful, be appropriate, be professional. Above all else, do not be a creep.”

In case you missed it here’s the link to that post.

It is not helpful to elaborate the important stories of women talking about harassment to generate lies

It is not helpful to elaborate the important stories of women talking about harassment to generate lies. Nor is it respectful to those women. So don’t do that.

This:

Bora and I were walking in the same direction and chatting, a bit tipsy, when he asked me if I would walk him back to his hotel. I lost my breath for a second. I froze and stuttered, “No, I have to go.”

does not equal this:

So we start by getting the facts straight. The facts are fine the way they are, the story stands on its own without the middle school antics.

Scientific American Blogs Responds

UPDATE:

This just in…

A Message from Mariette DiChristina, Editor in Chief

Scientific American bloggers lie at the heart of the SA website, pumping vitality, experience and broad insight around the community. Unfortunately our poor communication with this valuable part of the SA network over the recent days has led to concerns, misunderstandings and ill feelings, and we are committed to working to try to put this right as best we can.

We know that there are real and important issues regarding the treatment of women in science and women of color in science, both historically and currently, and are dismayed at the far too frequent cases in which women face prejudice and suffer inappropriate treatment as they strive for equality and respect. We recently removed a blog post by Dr. Danielle Lee that alleged a personal experience of this nature….

CLICK HERE to read the entire post.

Key points: “Unfortunately, we could not quickly verify the facts of the blog post and consequently for legal reasons we had to remove the post….In removing the post, we were in no way commenting upon the substance of the post, but reflecting that the underlying facts were not confirmed.”

I have a problem with this because it seems to say that DN Lee was not being trusted as truthful. But, lawyers will be lawyers, I suppose. But still, it feels a bit icky.

“Biology-Online is neither a part of Scientific American, nor a “content partner.” We are investigating what links we currently have with Biology-Online. ”

This does not surprise me, as the links seemed rather tenuous to begin with. Good to hear, though, even aside from the present maneno. Biology-Online seems a bit questionable.

“Juggling holiday-weekend commitments with family, lack of signal and a dying phone, alongside the challenges of reaching colleagues over a holiday weekend, I attempted to at least address initial social-media queries about the matter with a tweet yesterday: “Re blog inquiry: @sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.” I acknowledge that microblogs are not the ideal medium for such an important explanation to our audiences and regret the delay in providing a fuller response. My brief attempt to clarify, posted with the belief that “saying something is better than saying nothing,” clearly had the opposite effect. With 20/20 hindsight, I wish I had simply promised a fuller reply when I was able to be better connected and more thorough.

(Emphasis added wherever you see it, by the way)

Yes, I agree with the final statement here. That was a goof.

“…we intend to discuss how we can better investigate and publicize such problems in general and search for solutions with Dr. Lee and with the wider scientific community. With the help of Dr. Lee as an author, Scientific American plans to provide a thoroughly reported feature article about the current issues facing women in science and the related research in the coming weeks.”

Mariette does not seem to say if Danielle’s post is back up. BRB…

No, I don’t see it.

Well, this is a start, anyway. Hopefully with this post the conversation will shift to where DN Lee has said she’d like it to shift, towards the underlying problem. This post is a bit unsatisfying but it does explain some things. I think it would be a really good idea for Scientific American Blogs to re-post DN Lee’s post as a matter of faith and good will.

I look forward to seeing a long and thoughtful post on all of this by Bora!