Wednesday, November 27, 2013

I'll Go First

Earlier this year, I participated in a workshop about diversity in hiring and retention, with all the usual discussion of implicit bias and so on and so forth. It was very well done and I appreciated the reminders and advice.

At one point in the workshop, we were divided into small groups to discuss relevant topics. My group consisted of 4 women and 1 man (all white). Although I was the only scientist in the group, it turned out that 3 of the 4 women were from fields in which women are underrepresented.

For our small-group discussions, we were told to share experiences in which we had felt that gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or other characteristic had affected how people had treated us in a professional situation. When one of the women in my group started to speak, the man interrupted her and said "I'll go first."

I laughed and got a strange look from him. I thought he was being funny and had jumped in like that to be deliberately stereotypically aggressive. He was not joking. He really wanted to go first. He had seriously interrupted the woman who started to speak because he had something really important to say (first).

His example involved living in another country years ago and having someone say something in a meeting about Americans not understanding some aspect of higher education administration in that other country. This hurt him. He felt stereotyped, and he felt that the comment was directed at him even if it was made in an apparently general way.

The stories the women told were mostly about being ignored, silenced, disrespected, overlooked, and patronized in very personal ways that in some cases affected their careers. The man nodded and said he understood, he had felt that same way when he was insulted that time years ago.

I admit that I thought his example was stupid and I thought that I would not like to be in his department. Not to be competitive or anything, but he came up with one ancient example in which his administrative prowess had been obliquely called into question. The women each had multiple recent experiences in which they had been the specific, personal target of some very unpleasant behavior by colleagues or administrators.

But then I wondered: perhaps, for the purposes of being alert to bias, the important thing is that this man believes that he had the experience of being stereotyped and feels empathy as a result? I am not advocating being disrespected as a personal growth experience for all, but I wondered if I was being too hard on him in dismissing his example as absurd.

Then I remembered that he had interrupted and insisted on going first, and I gave up on my wonderings. Perhaps my failure to respect his example shows the limitations of my empathy. And perhaps I have a lot more work to do to overcome my own biases (despite attending numerous workshops).

I left the workshop thinking: how can any of us possibly do the right thing (in the hiring process) if we are all riddled with biases, despite good intentions? Is our best hope to have large and diverse hiring committees comprised of people whose biases, implicit and overt, will mostly cancel each other out?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Tour de Forced

Lately I have been looking at those little roving clusters in campus tours with a new perspective. Over the years, I have been amused and in some cases semi-horrified by what I have overheard as campus tours passed nearby. I have been amused by the endless trove of strange trivia that tour guides impart, and semi-horrified when some of that trivia is about my department/building and is quite incorrect (not that it matters). Lately I have been looking at these groups to observe the proportion of students to parents and to see if any students look like they are on the tour without their parents. It's hard to tell of course, but I think most students go on these tours with one or both parents.

Although not something I have to face too imminently, college is looming on the horizon for my daughter, and that will mean campus tours and all the rest. My parents did not accompany me on any campus tours, but these days it seems that many parents do. I can see how the shared experience would give you something to discuss later, and that would be interesting.

Even so, I would rather walk around a campus with my daughter ± husband (not on a tour) and have her do the guided tour thing alone if she wants to go on a tour. I am not sure I could handle all that backward walking, our-rec-center-is-so-cool, the history-building-is-haunted trivia stuff.

I am surely being unfair to campus tour guides by even suggesting that all they do is spout meaningless factoids. I know that the work they do can be extremely important. I have met several people recently whose choice of college was positively or negatively affected by the campus tour guide. In fact, I recently asked a high school senior why he decided not to apply to a particular university, and he said it was because he didn't like the campus tour guide.

I still remember the tour guide at the one college to which I applied (early decision). I was very impressed by her. Did she change my life? Perhaps I would have applied and gone elsewhere for college if she had been an obnoxious bore? I don't know, but I also think my experience on the tour would have been different if my parents had been with me. I enjoyed being on my own, free to have my own impressions and then talk about them with my parents later.

I have discussed this with my daughter, and she is so-far ambivalent about being accompanied by one or more parents. She can see how the shared-experience thing might be nice, but she is also happy to have her own adventures. I told her that if she ever wants me to accompany her, I will, and I will even try to behave.

Did you go on campus tours with your parents (or other adults) and/or offspring (depending on your stage of life..)? Are you glad you did? If so, what was good about it? And if you did not go on campus tours with your parents (or other adults) and/or offspring, why not?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Price Check : You

A former PhD student of one of my colleagues recently added up the cost to their advisor/institution of their graduate education: salary, tuition, benefits for n years. It was a large number. Add to that the cost of the research (this can be considerable). Then evaluate the result, however you want to attempt to measure that in tangible or intangible ways (knowledge advanced, papers published, career opportunities for the former student).

[Note: I am talking about the typical case of a STEM graduate student who receives full support during their graduate studies -- salary, tuition, benefits. In this post I am ignoring the issue of low pay for grad students, not because I don't care about the issue but because I want to discuss other financial aspects of the grad school experience.]

In this particular case, the former student (who is not an academic and who has a successful career that involves thinking about money) was just musing about 'worth'. Was it 'worth' it to the advisor, department, institution to spend all that money on this PhD? In this particular case, the advisor's answer is yes (I happen to know), and I will take the liberty to speak on behalf of the institution and say yes as well. This is a good result.

I was impressed that the former student was interested in putting a price tag on their graduate education for the items that have specific costs. If you are in a STEM field or another field in which you are paid to be a graduate student (including as a teaching assistant), do you know how much your graduate education cost(s)? For example, if you are a graduate research assistant paid from a grant, do you know what the actual amount to the grant is (not just your salary)? You may not know, as advisors don't routinely share this information; I don't, but not because it is a secret, it just doesn't occur to me to mention it. If you are teaching assistant, your department may be paying your tuition and benefits in addition to your salary, which may or may not be the same amount as for a research assistant depending on institution-specific policies.

And how much does your research cost? You probably know (or knew) some of the costs, for example if you turned in receipts for conference travel. But do you also know the costs (rate) for any analytical, computational, or other methods that have user fees? This is not a judgmental question with a right and wrong answer; I'm just curious.

Whether those costs turn out to be 'worth' it to anyone (including you) is another question -- one that is too big a question for my post-grading brain to handle right now, though it is interesting to contemplate how each of us measures long-term worth in this particular context.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Heads or Chairs?

Whenever administrators at the department level (or moral equivalent) gather to discuss their experiences, a very common topic is whether one is a head or a chair. What is the difference and who cares?

First let me note here that I am not entirely one or the other (but will not explain that statement further), so the distinction is not one that I feel strongly about. Nevertheless, I have found myself having the heads-or-chairs conversation (or listening to discussion of the topic) a surprising number of times in the past year or so.

During one recent discussion among a group of chair-heads, it turned out that some people's definition (in this case: powerful heads vs. less-powerful chairs) did not hold up in the face of data. In fact, in a group composed of heads and chairs, there seemed to be no difference in terms of the types of activities and amount of "power" (for lack of a better word) each administrative species had. Perhaps there is a distinction within a single institution that has both heads and chairs, but any such distinctions across institutions seem to have little or no meaning. I am not even sure there are distinctions within single institutions. I know of one case in which the distinction is related to historical preference rather than to any real difference in responsibilities.

To answer the question about the difference between a head and a chair: There seems to be a belief among some that heads have more power (such as to make decisions with less consultation of faculty, committees, deans) or length of term (5±1 years versus 3 years) but in fact there may or may not be a difference at some (many?) institutions.

Who cares? Do you care? My unscientific research into this critical issues seems to indicate that heads care more than chairs. I have heard some people (n = 6) specifically note that they are a head, not a chair, but I have not heard a chair make such an emphatic distinction. Maybe administrators at higher levels care. Maybe I have met the only 6 people in the world who care. I can tell you for sure that my mother does not care.

Which one do you think sounds better? I think they both sound absurd (if you really think about it), but head is simpler because it is gender-neutral. Chair can of course be short for chairperson, but chairman is still a very common word. The easiest way to get me to claim to be a "head" is to ask me whether I prefer chairwoman, chairman, or chairperson. Ugh. None of the above.