Thursday, July 9, 2009

Do Women and Minorities Need Thicker Skin to Do Math and Science

Ahhh, nothing says good morning like a good public berating and an i.d. flush. I picked a good day to begin the next phase of character development. I wrote a post yesterday on my other site in which I referenced an old friend of mine whom I considered to be a mensch. I wanted to post a video regarding menschdom on the site, but alas, most of the mensch related youtube videos were related toward finding a mensch TO MARRY than to emulate. I just would like to be a Mensch, but I realize that there are certain behaviors that I'm going to have to eradicate if I am going to ever be able to be one.

Hence the challenge. Anybody can project a great image of themselves when life is peaceful and the universal flow allows them to move in that direction. It can become a nightmare to be the only one doing the right thing, or be torn up inside about what that thing is when you encounter conflict, adversity or when something that you are particularly sensitive about presents itself as an issue.

Ironically I made the decision to consciously increase my standards by eliminating gossip, complaining, and negativity from my repertoire, but oh my. It's amazing how difficult that can be when the opportunity presents itself. After last night, i've found myself secretly hoping that something completely absurd will happen [as it did yesterday, to remove the focus off of intense areas of agitation for me, so that I can sublimate my negativity better into more constructive means. Case in point:

Last night, I had a meeting that I was building up a lot of anxiety about. I was put in charge of a project that I am acutely aware that I am unprepared for [in terms of training, leadership skills, etc., and as a result my team isn't motivated to do their jobs, or at this point show up to meetings either, which I will own up to, is due to the lack of leadership.] The other person, I work with, that I was looking to for mentorship, doesn't really have interest in the project, which is why I was surprised that she dragged me, even though I expressed my reluctance on board. I will give it to her, the girl is one hell of a closer and can get you to do anything, and I mean ANYTHING, even after you tell her no. I'd hate to see what lengths she goes to once she gets some money backing her. Anyway, aside from her manipulative and shrew-like tendencies, I like her, but we clash over management styles, because I hate [and when I say hate I mean ABSOLUTELY HATE micromanagement. I'm pretty sure it's on my list of pet peeves, but unfortunately she was a much more effective project leader than I was because that is how she "motivates people" to do things. Me, I don't want to twist people's arms and have to be up people's *ss all the time.

What can I say, I have a life now, I've been there, and I didn't like myself as a person when I did it.... I have yet to meet anyone who acts like that who does like themselves. Micromanagers have very high stress levels, risk factors for stress related illnesses and death, and predisposition toward engaging in risky behaviors, such as alcholism, drug abuse, and meaningless sex. I've sworn off all of those things, and quit smoking, but my fears of inadequacy about this project and avoidance of conflict really make me reconsider it. Instead I've been going to the pool, or making crafts, or listening to guided meditation or something.

Anyway, the girl didn't show up to the meeting, which is fine. she hi-jacked my last one and dragged it out an extra hour. but no one showed up, so in order to reduce the panic that was building in my stomach and in an attempt to exercise good faith i went to this ice cream shop before hand and split this massive brownie sunday with a good friend of mine. what i didn't realize is that since i have switched over to a primarily soy based diet, that i am now lactose intolerant and when the clock hit nine, i hit the card reader with my idea and went flying to the bathroom [sorry for the overshare, but it will be worth it i promise].

while i was in the stall, i saw my id hanging out of my pocket and something told me to put it on my windowsill [i thought it was fear, evidently it was intution, i've been getting those two confused a lot lately]. i thought, nah, i'll just leave it where it is. if i set it in the sill, i will probably forget it and end up locked out. i checked the toilet because i was worried i used too much toilet paper. i've been trying to be mindful of my consumption levels. then i flushed, washed my hands and stuck my hands in my pocket. my id was gone.

no worries, i went back, checked. nothing. checked under the sink, under the closet door, checked all the stalls. nope. the only logical explanation was that i somehow managed to flush it, which is a feat in itself. the physics don't even add up to that, but unless it just vanished into thin air, that is the only thing it could have been. i was very present at the time, so i don't know what else it could have been. i went looked around to be sure, went back to the conference room and after 10 minutes i left a note that read;

"i was here, no one showed, flushed i.d., gone to bed. Please do not disturb."

--sigh, i went back to my room, and i wanted to cry, but my bed is lofted and my roomate had company so i just sat in the corner and made jewelry. this just happened to be the same day, and the only time that this happened when i left my good fortune choker, that i'd made out of hemp in the locker room after my swim class... coincidence, probably, but definitely poorly timed. i think the jewelry making was a good call, because it gave me a little bit of time to decide how i wanted to handle the other situation, and the id thing was so absurd, i couldn't help but to laugh about it. there was no need being all intense about it right? so that's what i'm working on. whenever i feel intense reactions about things, sort of detaching from those sentiments and sublimating them into something more constructive.

the choker is gone. i checked the lost and found this morning, and really i'm okay with that. i was even ok with letting the id go. getting a new one was like getting a new identity. this morning i had to make the decision do i go to class, or get my i.d. and i'm not really a skipper, unless there's an emergency or something, so i thought to myself,

if they take a new picture today, i want to be able to look at myself and remember that i consciously chose that day to exercise a little bit of integrity... i don't know why that seems like a challenge. doing the right thing comes pretty natural to me. i think i have found it a bit of a burden lately because i've received a little bit of criticism from someone who i thought was a friend who called me "annoying" behind my back because "she thinks she's somebody's mother or something. just because she's 27 doesn't mean that she knows everything...." okay britney spears, have at it. i'm ok with stepping away. that's not something i want to be all dark and angsty about.

the reason i'm writing this post, however, is because i'm actually sublimating something else that's bothering me that i feel pretty intensely about....

I'm taking a summer course in physical science that is pretty grueling. And if I didn't work my ass off, I might not have been so sensitive to being antagonistically and publically berated by my professor, and i still don't understand what i did that was so offensive. i don't want to call too much attention to it because i don't want to fuel it or make myself a target. but it has something to do with asking questions about how to do the lab. i asked for help, because i frequently find myself the last person in the lab asking how to use the software, [a lot has changed in microsoft excel since i took the class on how to use it back in the summer of 2001]. i should have known there was a problem when he put a paper towel under my iced coffee, or when he asked me if i understood and i told him that i really didn't and he told me that he would explain it again... this time in english. but i dismissed it because well, he always cracks jokes. i didn't realize that i had pushed some button. and the truth is, i doubt it was even about me. but i was having difficulty getting the exponential trendline to show up on the graph. i looked it up in help and the information listed wasn't consistent with what was in front of me.

it usually takes me a lot to ask for help, and really after a moderate level of frustration, when the epiphany hits me that it's probably more constructive to just ask how to do the exercise properly than to work myself up over something that can be fixed if i am shown how to do it. evidently though this is where the problem came in, and this is not the first time. i tried to explain that with my background i wasn't sure how to anticipate whatever it was that he was talking about, because he definitely expected me to know something which just so happened to be the piece i was missing... and his response to me was, that was the wrong answer. then he left me sitting there very puzzled and proceeded to walk around the classroom announcing that in order to get the problems that we needed to struggle and that "you're not gaining anything by having someone show you how to do it." i just sat there clicking around trying to keep my blood from boiling over. i felt like it was an attack on my personal integrity, particularly as i, who can be pretty computer saavy and the queen of research, was being criticized for asking for help... a recurring issue that keeps coming up in my math and science courses... particularly when i get the textbook example of patriarchal men for my professors.

i first encountered this kind of academic arrogance when i went to michigan state. there was this british guy who taught chemistry that treated me like a jerk for coming to his office hours and asking how to understand how to do the computations. maybe i was asking stupid questions. maybe he just expected me to know it, the truth was, it turned out that there was a lot missing from my math background that kept me from connecting with the material. i got so fed up, i started going to another professor's section because there wasn't an attendance policy, someone who was much more engaging, who recognized what the problem was because he had a background that included taking an interest in his students and tada, i got a b in the course.

spring forward to fall semester here, i had an altercation with my math professor over something similar. evidently his granddaughter was having heart surgery that day, some girl antagonized him about his grading on what should have been a legitimate grievance, but she dealt with it poorly. my question was about the same problem, he tried to deflect whatever was going on by calling on me, and i had put my hand down about five minutes prior. i tried very carefully to state that the way the question was worded, it appeared that there could be some confusion about what was being asked and the guy flipped out. [and when i say flipped out, he flipped out, the other girl egged him on, and he stormed out slamming a door] i quietly gathered my things to leave and ran into him in the door way, in which he snidely remarked to me "where do you think you're going." i didn't go to class for a week because my anxiety was through the roof. it was by far the worst anxiety attack i've ever had. the lady from counseling services felt so bad for me that she canceled her appointments so that she could come with me to explain my issue... [and it boiled down to she had to be the one with the balls to bring up the race and gender issue,] and i realized then, that this is something that i don't think i'll ever be able to escape when i'm dealing with people for whom this stuff comes naturally... but then again, maybe i just need thicker skin or something.

i don't want to feed this mentality by reacting as arrogantly as these guys did, but i can definitely see why they are pissy about it. the thing is, i don't know how to react in this situation and so instead i simply hold it in, in a very taciturn manner. i know that if i react, my behavior will be written off as some sort of character defect of my gender or race, and if i don't react it becomes the green light for this type of behavior to happen again. because it hasn't affected my grading it isn't really an issue that i take to the ombudsman. i learned last semester with my writing professor, who i'm currently appealing my grade with [a "B" to an A because it's what i earned], that when professor's egos are involved, you don't want to exacerbate it with an appeal, even when it's a legitimate one, because they perceive it as an attack on their professional qualifications... that math teacher told me that, not in reference to me, but in regards to the other student. his explanation was that somehow i had just gotten "caught up in the mix" and that indeed my question was legitimate, but as his wife had explained, it was just a bit of transference.

i understand people are human, and i can accept that. it's why i try not to hold onto things. but i love how when these guys get these revelations that this is supposed to be the bit of struggle that gives them their character, that makes them better than me. meanwhile i struggle with decisions like this every single day, and i don't have a single mark against my reputation for flipping out on people, saying, doing anything inappropriate. i don't ask for any accolades for it, and i keep going, even on days when i want to cry and quit or lash out, but still it is my character that is called into question if i don't say anything. if i engage with them i'm accused of being militant, disorderly or sensitive. if i do nothing an assumption is made that i don't care, i'm too stupid to care, or that i don't have a backbone. and i made sure to ask specifically about this when i was being interviewed. but through all of lies and reassurances i keep going. i keep sticking it out, hoping that perhaps if i get through it, that it will soften the blows to someone who shares my path or wants to follow my lead.

but frankly the experience of being marginalized in the classroom a bit discouraging. in order to be authentic i have to notice it. to have integrity i have to not react toward it in a destructive manner. to be assertive i have to deal with it, or find a constructive way to work past it. but really all i want to do is feel better and avoid having to go through with it. i think for those of us who don't have the background to have any intuition in the math and sciences without any previous form of reference. i have to rely on visual models or practice and examples in how to perform procedures when i have no frame of reference to correlate it to. and it takes both time and good models for many who lack a mathmatic, technical, or scientific background to be able to master it, and i'm on the upper end of the learning curve because of the little bit of privilege i had growing up. but there are still learning gaps there, and i think sometimes the guys teaching forget that. but, in all fairness, i was warned not to take the guy's course.

but my view is very holistic and i wanted to have a sense of what i was getting into before i took anymore of his courses at the higher level. i believe it was a good call, although some may argue that i probably just committed some form of academic suicide by rationalizing taking the guy's course. from what i've experienced, struggle is only effective when you have that burning question in your mind, or some driving desire toward or idea of the direction that you're headed toward. it's about following through. but unnecessary struggle only wastes time, energy and causes burnout and i can draw you an atomic model if i need to that will accurately illustrate that fact, because yes, right now i am an angry woman who learns either through practice, experience or being able to formulate an accurate picture to correlate how to correctly follow the procedure. [yeah jerk, why do you think we use recipes, or read magazines].

i'm not really that angry, but the intensity was definitely there earlier. i would have just left, but i didn't want to make a scene. i would have emailed him, but i didn't want to make myself a target again. i just hung out with my girlfriend. i didn't complain. i wanted to spontaneously combust. i've begun to realize that my intensity level increases when i internalize stuff that really should be dealt with. but in picking and choosing my battles, [something i struggle with daily, unless the realization hits that there is a more constructive and efficient way to learn the lesson...] i just stew a little. i let go a little. and repeat the pattern until many half-lives later i can let it go enough to move on. but i won't lie, i don't care how thick my skin gets, each time it gets me deeper and deeper. i'm a the point now where i'm back in the age of black renaissance. that's right, i've had to break out maya and langston to remind me that regardless of what these people try to do to humiliate me, excellence in character comes second nature because for people like them, cruelty and arrogance is the mechanism some people use to try to challenge and motivate others. it is a sick practice, but it would be more unhealthy for me to buy into it. i just regret that the reputation of an institution that prides itself in shaping and developing leaders must be marred by the character defects of those who think that creating conflict is an appropriate means of building character. But perhaps this is why they say that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions".

But how do we cope, we women and minorities, who are fairly sensitive as any female or minority could be when they are few and far between or among the first in the field as many of our mentors are? I can definitely see the predisposition of bitterness and hostility that many black faculty members feel toward their administrations in predominately white institutions. I definitely would love to know if any associations have been built that deal with this phenomenon and would love to spend my winter short term working on an internship that addresses the problem of support and resources so that we can better support those who come from ill-equipped backgrounds to cope with problems like these. Because my skin can only get so thick and equal opportunity does not exist when disparity exists in backgrounds and allowances aren't made to supplement these discrepancies. I can see now why many women and minorities are often deterred from wanting to continue their work in them.

after watching this, i think that from now, on the noble choice might be to simply stand quietly, collect my things and state quietly and calmly, "I think it's best I leave. I don't want to risk offending anyone else." and the go.

I wonder what Sheila Tobias would think:

Books by Sheila Tobias

Science Teaching as a ProfessionResearch Corporation for Advancement of Science has just published a new book by Sheila Tobias and veteran science teacher Anne Baffert. The title is Science Teaching as a Profession: Why It Isn't, How It Could Be. Based upon their communications with nearly 500 science teachers across the United States, Tobias and Baffert explore what is needed to reduce attrition by high school science teachers at a time when the U.S. is facing increasing competition. Download a free PDF.

Overcoming Math AnxietySheila Tobias first wrote Overcoming Math Anxiety in 1978. In her updated version, published by W. W. Norton in 1994 (and in paperback in 1995), she enlarges on her analysis of the attitude and approach variables that interfere with students' performance in college-level mathematics. Their problem, she finds, is not a failure of intellect but a failure of nerve. Above all, she challenges the notion that "math anxiety" is a disability. "Math Anxiety" can be overcome. Available in bookstores.

Succeed with MathTobias' second book, Succeed with Math, tells teachers and students (college age and older) how to approach mathematics and master it without anxiety. Her books and her talks are particularly pertinent to the issue of access for minorities and women. She brings a video tape of a math anxiety session along. Available from The College Board, Book Department, 45 Columbus Ave. New York, N.Y. 10023-6917. By Visa or MasterCard by calling The College Board, 800-323-7155.

Not DumbIn an effort to disentangle the many variables that account for failure and/or unwillingness of large numbers of college students to pursue mathematics and science, Sheila Tobias has engaged otherwise successful outsiders in a series of experiments across disciplinary boundaries. She finds that barriers to learning are the result of "disciplinary cultures." Available from Sheila Tobias, P.O. Box 43758, Tucson AZ 85733-3758, at $5.00 for single copies, $3.00 per copy in orders of 15 or more. Checks only.

Breaking the Science BarrierThis book explains how to succeed in college math and science classes. It explores the fundamentals of understanding science and the kinds of study and thinking that college professors expect. The meanings of terms in science, how understanding changes from high school to college, and making connections among facts are also covered. Available from The College Board, Book Department, 45 Columbus Ave. New York, N.Y. 10023-6917. By Visa or MasterCard by calling The College Board, 800-323-7155.

Revitalizing Undergraduate ScienceEvery wave of mathematics and science education reform obliterates the one before and leaves little lasting change in its wake. This book is available directly from Research Corporation for Advancement of Science, 101 N. Wilmot Road. Tucson, AZ 85711 or by fax 520-571-1119, Price: $3.95 per copy. A computer program called "A Department-Based Audit to Improve the Quality of Undergraduate Instruction in the Sciences" is also available as a free downloadable .zip file. The program comes without support and without warrantee.

The Hidden CurriculumA collection of narratives about innovations in exam content, exam format, exam ecology, and grading practices from 160 teaching faculty in colleges and universities. Demonstrates that while faculty may not test what they value, in time students come to value what they test, and that an image of science emerges from traditionally constructed tests that disserves "second tier" students and science majors. Plenum Press, 1997; in bookstores or by ordering directly from Plenum Press, 233 Spring St. New York 10013.

Rethinking Science as a CareerIn this study of scientists in mid-career and young scientists on the job market, Sheila Tobias and her co-authors, Daryl Chubin and Kevin Aylesworth, propose new training of undergraduate and graduate majors in science, a reconsideration of the master's degree in science, and "restructuring demand" so that young people of talent can expect to have the work they deserve. Available from Research Corporation for Advancement of Science. Same ordering as above. Price $2.50 per copy.

Faces of Feminism In her narrative history of the second wave of feminism, Sheila Tobias concludes that the "Movement" with a capital M may be over, but the "movement" of American women into power and into the mainstream is unstoppable. How this came about, the future of feminism, and why feminists were so loathe to abandon President Clinton in 1997-98 are topics she addresses in her talks (1), (2), and (3). In (4), she goes beyond and beneath the statistics and examines the underlying paradigmatic "ideology" of access and advancement of women in science. (Westview Press, 1997; paperback, 1998) in bookstores.


BBC World Service | Home