Pat McNees

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The flap about Larry Summers
Questioning the norms in graduate science education

Larry Summers
Here are links both to what Lawrence H. Summers actually said in his remarks in 2005 about diversity at Harvard and to some of the more interesting pieces written in response to his comments about why more girls and women don't go into science and engineering. His comments certainly mobilized discussion. As for what to do to change things, read the story "Why Janie Can't Engineer" and take a look at the National Science Foundation book on the subject.

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Breaking the Silences
A selection from New Formulas

Science often operates under unacknowledged rules, norms, and expectations. And the intense power in faculty-student relations can last well beyond graduate school. Many graduate women are keenly aware of, and articulate about, the culture and institutional practices of science but are reluctant to speak up about them. Banu Subramaniam’s faculty-student research and action project at the University of Arizona was designed to break those silences.

One of their first discoveries was that graduate education is structured less around the classroom than around a protégé-master model. In this one-to-one model, interpersonal communication and relationships are central, and social markers of gender, class, ethnicity, and sexuality are ubiquitous—but talking about interpersonal communication, relationships, and social markers is forbidden.

They came to realize that graduate education is unique, with a “student” clearly subordinate to the faculty and in search of training from them, yet leaving school as a “colleague” to the very same faculty. Undergraduates learn about science and might even learn how to do experiments and interpret data, but graduate students learn how to “be” a “scientist.” For this, they must learn to present themselves as credible professionals —- network, design and carry out research projects, choose interesting and productive research topics, give talks, discuss science with colleagues, procure grants, publish results, recruit and motivate good students. So what began as a study of women’s experiences in graduate education became a look at scientists as knowledge-makers, who value not talking about and not recognizing the social world they create, maintain, and reproduce. How does this culture function? How does it reinscribe particular notions of gender, race, and class with the next generation of aspiring scientists?

Phase I, an institutional analysis, used questionnaires and interviews to determine how gender dynamics are “operationalized” in graduate education and what roles are played by male and female graduate students, post-docs, faculty, and department heads. Who determines the shaping of everyday science? The running of labs? The research questions asked? The methodologies employed? How do the power dynamics shape the participation of the different groups and in what ways?

Phase II featured a facilitated conversation between 20 faculty and 20 female graduate students about the strengths and limitations of graduate education for women, with an emphasis on gender issues. Four departments (math, chemistry, molecular and cellular biology, and ecology and evolutionary biology) were chosen because they had supportive chairs and represented different forms of research. It was important to the success of this part of the project — especially to student frankness — that students and faculty communicated through the facilitators and that participants’ identities remained anonymous to the other group. In a framework developed by Mary Wyer at Duke, two facilitators met separately with two faculty groups and two student groups in 20 two-hour sessions.

Student experiences varied somewhat (often shaped by lab groups and departments) but students were astonished at how similar some experiences were across departments. Persistent student issues were the lack of, and the need for, greater communication between faculty and students. There was departmental variation but on the whole students felt there were not enough occasions for faculty-student interactions. Overall, they did not believe faculty cared.
Faculty viewed their relationships with their students as particular and idiosyncratic. Anecdotes students offered as symptomatic of larger currents in graduate education were usually said by faculty to reflect problems of individuals. Students tended to view becoming a scientist or mathematician as a particular, constructed, and sometimes arbitrary process. They were interested in challenging and reinterpreting who could be a good scientist. Faculty tended to see the process as natural, involving the growth and maturation of something already inside the students in incipient form—a growth on which they had only limited influence. Their understanding of what happens often left little room for criticism in the sense that it emphasized a “stay if you fit in, leave if you don’t” perspective. To faculty, a student should be able to tell that s/​he is “cut out to be a scientist” if graduate education seemed to come easy, be reasonable and rational. If not, the student was not meant to be a scientist.
Powerful insights came from an exercise in which each group was invited to name the unwritten rules governing graduate education. Students developed an extensive set of rules that demonstrated their commitment to being “good” and competent scientists—for example, Don’t complain, even about real problems; don’t have a personal life; pretend to be like your advisor; being a woman is a liability; you don’t have input, even on decisions that affect graduate school (even when asked); don’t exhibit “feminine” behaviors.
Students questioned the necessity and efficacy of many of these rules. Why must you work all the time? Why are research positions seen as a more “valuable” career track than teaching positions? Why are certain behaviors not allowed? Why is scientific culture silent on issues of gender? Why can you not have a personal life? Students consistently challenged the lists of rules and through that critiqued the scientific culture’s prototype of the ideal “scientist.” The students were willing to follow rules to do science; what they challenged was whether all of the rules defined by contemporary scientific culture produced good science — or, more important, whether not following those rules always produced bad science. They saw phase III as a place to envision a different scientific culture, one not hostile to their identities as women, one structured to create imaginative, empowered, and productive graduate student experiences.

In phase III, a subset of the faculty and students came together for an extremely successful open dialogue, aimed at re-envisioning graduate education, which highlighted the importance of communication as a way of clearing each group’s misperceptions of the other. Demonstrating that faculty and students could develop an open, honest, and constructive dialogue, this group developed constructive recommendations for change, posted at (http:/​/​​~ws/​science/​nsf).

This project personally transformed many of the participants, but translating the recommendations into institutional change and transforming others within their departments proved difficult—because not all members of each department participated in the whole experience. A one-hour seminar or forum that brings faculty and students together does not recreate the process. To transform a department is extremely difficult because it requires breaking silences that have developed historically within the culture of science. Change requires concentrated work within a few departments, involving a significant number of faculty and graduate students, and in some cases all faculty.

From the National Science Foundation's New Formulas for America's Workforce by Pat McNees

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