Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Wall Between Me & You

And take all your friends with you, or at least as many as you can; purge the city of your presence; you will deliver me from a great fear when there is a wall between you and me. Cicero - Oration Against Cataline

I don't know why, but those lines have stuck in my head since high school Latin class. I use them today to introduce the latest literary and media attempt to portray scientists as a different, pitiful, unfashionable type of human. In this case, the culprit is Walter Kirn, whose writing I have from time to time found of interest. But no more.

I am no Cicero, but Walter should leave, and take his friend, the NY Times book reviewer Janet Maslin, with him. Here is why:

Regarding undergraduate science students during his student days as an English major at Princeton, Kirn wrote in his recently published memoirs (which I have not read and know of only from today's NYT review):

Somehow, someday, they'd reproduce, but that phase was not yet upon them, blessedly. For now they were free to decline communication and dress in pants that didn't reach their shoes.

Ha ha. So clever. And not believable. His contemptuous tone as he repeats this stereotype is much more unappealing than the image of those dopey science students with their unfashionable pants and their unwillingness to speak.

Compounding the idiocy is this introductory line in Maslin's review:

About science students, with the fine-tuned accuracy that makes much of this account so enjoyable, he notes: (see above)

Fine-tuned accuracy? I wasn't an English major, but is that a synonym for contemptuous?

What is the evidence for accuracy? Show me the data. I want photographs, names, confessions. Kirn's description doesn't fit my impression of the science students I knew from Princeton or anywhere at that time. I want proof that "science students" at Princeton, circa early 1980s, were unable to speak, were identifiable by the vast distance between their pant cuffs and shoes, and .. whatever the first part of Kirn's sentence is supposed to mean -- that science students had no romantic experiences or that they weren't yet making or having babies as undergraduates? I think I started hating this author when I got to the word "blessedly".

No, it's not really important that someone has written that they thought science students were dorky in the early 1980's, though perhaps we are becoming inured to memoirists making up random things for dramatic effect.

What bothers me is the us-and-them attitude and the contempt. It reminds me of the ignorant writings of Mrs. Mortimer, the 19th century British 'travel' writer who wrote emphatically about people she had never met and places she had never been. It turns out that everyone who wasn't like her was strange and contemptible.

For example, on the topic of German women, Mrs. Mortimer (according to The Clumsiest People in Europe: Or, Mrs. Mortimer's Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World, by Todd Pruzan), she wrote:

..they are not fond of reading useful books. When they read, it is novels about people who have never lived. It would be better to read nothing than such books.

It sounds like Mrs. Mortimer would have approved of Kirn's memoir.


Anonymous said...

I used to get irritated by this stuff; now I just ignore it. I worry, more, about a deeper trend in North American culture that really denigrates the value of learning and scholarship (obviously, this is just my opinion).
My faculty mentor (I'm a new professor) keeps telling me "Mark, you have to understand, the culture has changed." Maybe he's right...

Ok, maybe I am unfairly changing the topic, but this is my reaction.

Anonymous said...

As an english major (BA 2001) who is now a biology graduate student, I must chime in. I agree with you. The contempt for science and scientists by some of these people reflects poorly upon them.

barbara said...

I never went to Princeton, but I was a student at a high level college in the mid eighties. I do remember the humanities majors being very frustrated at the hard science majors.
They knew we had much better job prospects, and noticed we didn't care about the occasional bad mark; we also helped each other much, much more.
And yes, as an average we were less carefully dressed, but definitely not chaste!

So I can imagine one of them writing such similar nonsense now. And I wouldn't be surprised if the reviewing journalist has been in a similar predicament and is therefore sympathetic.

Kris said...

By the sounds of it, it sounds like his impression that the science students didn't communicate (with either him or his friends) is probably more down to their contemptible attitude ...

Alyssa said...

Argh! I hate that crap! It sounds like he's not remembering his actual college experience, but those from cheesy 80's college movies.

Chris said...

I would love to be able to dismiss characterizations like Mr. Kim's, and take comfort in the disparity of opportunities available to the average science major vs. the typical English major, but there is real evidence that this stereotype is turning children away from careers in science. As a lifelong student of science who did just fine socially, thank you, I find this as personally offensive as you have. Thanks for pointing it out.

Curt F. said...

Great post, FSP. Apparently "fine-tuned accuracy" has a different meaning to Walter Kirn and Janet Maslin than to the reality-focused individuals among us.

I wonder, though, if the quotation were taken out of context. Maybe Kirn is referring to a particular subset of science students that he interacted with?

zoelouise said...

Perhaps he is just trying to be satirical?

It may relate to the difference between "memior" and "autobiography".

Every major gets typecast- patchouli soaked artistes, lit majors with thick glasses and black clothing, business majors in suits and hair gel, and I won;t even touch what is said about women's studies.

Whatevs. I can't see what's the big deal.

Anonymous said...

If anything, Mr. Kim has strengthened the stereotype that humanities professors and students are stuck-up snobs.

Ms.PhD said...

LOL@CPP. Parasites in the hair, indeed.

FSP, take comfort that only the uber-educated upper class with leisure time to spare would read this kind of review or book anyway.

Which means they either know you're right, or they already think they know everything.

I'm a little curious about why this struck such a nerve. My fellow science-nerds DID wear ill-fitting pants, although that was prior to college and I didn't go to Princeton (and I didn't go to college in the 1980s, for that matter). Maybe it stings a little because it's a tiny bit true?

I think the point that the very first commenter makes is the relevant one: scientists are pissed upon by American society. We're paid badly, have no job security, and no prestige. We all know this.

We don't want to get used to it, but I'm not sure how much blogging is going to reach out to the masses and change their minds. For that, we really do need more in the way of movies, tv shows, and ad campaigns re: what your local scientists have been doing for you lately.

Like it or not, our society is driven by appearances. It's how we make judgments about everything. It's not what's inside that counts, unless you also happen to be really well-dressed.

amy said...

Let's suppose this stereotype is turning kids away from science. Is the best solution to show that scientists are fashionable social butterflies who are popular and have lots of sex? Why not undermine the idea that there's something wrong with being a nerd, with not caring one whit about fashion, with being shy and socially awkward? I've been a nerd my whole life, and I gravitated to academia because it seemed like one of the few places in this society where my type of person could be successful. I also find nerdy guys very hot! If the academic world became just another place where only the cool people hang out, I don't know what I'd do.

Toaster Sunshine said...

I've said it before, I'll say it again:

Write me an algorithm for matching my clothes and I will thereafter always be presentable.

Mr. Kirn is a pompous jackass who is obviously fixated on shallow details. So what if science students skew more towards taciturn? So what if our closets are tattered and chemical-stained? We love what we're doing and everyone else can go shove off if they're just going to be jackasses.

Toaster Sunshine said...



And if the labs became populated with shallow, well-dressed people too afraid to do science for fear they may ruin their nice clothings, then I don't know either where I'd hang out. Probably Dairy Queen. And that's no good because Toaster + sugar = doom.

Curt F. said...

@Toaster Sunshine:
Mr. Kirn is a pompous jackass who is obviously fixated on shallow details. So what if science students skew more towards taciturn? So what if our closets are tattered and chemical-stained?Wait, now I'm confused. Do you think that Kirn was right but rude to say that "For now they were free to decline communication and dress in pants that didn't reach their shoes," or do you think he was just wrong?

If the academic world became just another place where only the cool people hang out, I don't know what I'd do.You must not have been to very many places (outside of the academic world) if you think that they are filled with "only the cool people".

Female Science Professor said...

FSP, take comfort that only the uber-educated upper class with leisure time to spare would read this kind of review or book anyway.I don't take comfort in statements like that. Perhaps it is the anti-intellectualism? Perhaps it is the assumption that reading certain books and reviews is an 'upper class' activity?

Anonymous said...

I was a double major in a science dept and a humanities dept in the 80s (though certainly not at Princeton). Without a doubt, my fellow students in the humanities were much more fashionably dressed than students in the sciences (including me). But, I've got to say that the science students were much smarter.

How do you like that for a stereotype?!

John Vidale said...

I'm somewhat shocked that posters would so adamantly deny what I thought was fairly obvious - science students tend to be taciturn, nerdy and not so suave and romantic. Particularly when viewed by non-science majors in the Ivy League. At least I know I was, as were most of my science friends.

Anonymous said...

We have fashionable students in the Chemistry department but they tend to be mediocre with exceptions of course. I, myself, is kind of stereotypical in the sense of the laidback dress attire due mainly to the lack of time in the mornings and for a more economical reason as working in the labs with dangerous material. But at other times I dress like any other people, fashionably and attractive, though come to think of it, unless inquired they don't know I am actually a scientist...which is rather a shame as nerd/geeks can be attractive too.

John Vidale said...

The majority of the posts assert that the non-science majors are less smart than the science majors, shallow - several assert that their job prospects are inferior. Some go so far as to argue distain for science is rejecting the value of learning.

My experience from Yale in the early '80s is those non-science students were not so dumb and their job prospects were not so grim. We could compute and build but they could create and pontificate - two different and useful skills.

Anonymous said...

Haven't read the Kirn comments which the post refers to, but it might be worth pointing out some context, in what appears to be an edited excerpt from his memoirs:


So even if he is being a jerk, there is an element of self-awareness/personal angst that should be factored in as mitigation. Also, the Atlantic piece suggests that he is, erm, writing with a novelist's eye rather than a reporter's or a historian's, so that everything is heightened for dramatic effect (i.e. slightly made-up).

(Hat tip to http://maradydd.livejournal.com/ for the link, by the way)

Zuska said...

FSP, I think reading the NYT Book Review is very much an activity that is marked by class - in a complicated sort of way. Class status in the U.S. is modulated by both money and education, such that a plumber with a high school diploma and some technical training may make more money than a college professor but most people would perceive the college professor to occupy a particular class status that will never be available to the plumber no matter how much money she or he makes. The college professor is more likely to be reading the NYT book reviews (though there are surely plumbers who read them too). Money is a class marker of its own in other ways, though not sufficient of course, as terms like "new money" make clear.

That's some sad writing in that memoir - the old "scientists are asexual extreme introverts" blah blah is really tired and trite. It strikes me that it would be far more difficult for a woman to get such poor, cliched crap reviewed by the NYT. To see a woman fawning in her review over such crappy writing by some d00d is seriously depressing.

Female Science Professor said...

I got the point, even if I don't agree with it with respect to books (maybe book reviews.., though I wouldn't use the term 'upper class'), I just don't see the point of being insulting about it; it's trading an anti-science insult for one that is equally pointless and ignorant.

Global Girl said...

I recognize the us vs. them feeling - even as I should be on the 'us' side of things. I feel like I don't belong when I wear clothes and shoes that I like to the lab. No one else wears heels, or even pumps. No one else follows fashion. No one else gets new haircuts or new accessories. No one else gets manicures or pedicures or wears makeup. I do not wear sandals and socks.

I feel like I don't belong when I try to start conversations with people who give one-line answers and don't move the conversation forward. I feel like I don't belong when people I know meet me and don't say hi. I don't belong when people leave a room without saying a word.

Some of these characterizations are silly, of course. (After all - *I* am a well-dressed, outgoing engineer. I can grow and analyze a thin film in a skirt and heels any day, and love making new friends.) But the stereotype comes from *somewhere*. I am not being driven away by a stereotype, I'm being driven away by lived experience with fellow engineers.