Guest post: How to be an ally

Intro from Meghan: This is a guest post by Gina Baucom. It’s a great take on a topic that I’ve written about in the past.

Here’s Gina’s post:

He’s just a clueless dude.

A friend and colleague told me recently about how one of her advisors had written a grant on the topic she developed in his lab — he was awarded the grant, but she was not included as a co-PI, even though that was a feasible option. Understandably, she was upset to not be included in some form or another. She discussed it with a different male faculty, and his response was that her advisor was simply a clueless dude.

The definition of clueless, according to Merriam-Webster, is:

  1. having or providing no clue
  2. completely or hopelessly bewildered, unaware, ignorant, or foolish.

Although this definition includes ignorance, when we use the term clueless to describe situations like the one above, it doesn’t seem to me that we’re calling anyone an ignoramous. My sense of the use of clueless here is a soft landing. A whoopsie. A ‘he’s a good guy that made a regrettable decision.’

But let me re-frame the above scenario for what it was: a decision that slowed the progression of a woman’s career. Whatever the reasoning behind the decision not to include my colleague, the end result was that she was left out of money, positions, and publications. In addition to the career consequences, being left out of something that you have worked very hard to create can be psychologically damaging. ‘What’s wrong with me that I wouldn’t be included? Am I a terrible scientist and no one is being honest about it?’

Although I’m certain I have applied ‘clueless’ to similar scenarios, I no longer believe this is the right way to think about them. Willful ignorance is more appropriate. There are approximately a gazillion resources (summarized here) detailing why women’s careers lag behind men’s. A conscientious academic who cares about how this happens can (at the very least) pick up a few resources, get himself educated, and learn to think carefully about how his actions may impact the careers of the people around him. Specifically, how his actions may contribute to the slowed career progression of women scientists — and not just the careers of his trainees, but the careers of women who are across the table from him, behind him, and in front of him.

Because there are men who have a clue, I know that willful ignorance is a choice. And since it’s a choice, I thought that perhaps a list of characteristics of people who choose to be allies could be helpful on two fronts. First, it might help clarify when particular situations and people have been less than ideal, or even damaging. Second, it may help people grapple with the toxicity of their past actions (or that of their colleagues), or, it may help solidify the types of behaviors that can add up in the positive over time. So, here is what I have noticed about effective allies in science:

1. They are kind, considerate, and do their best to communicate well. Communication can be really difficult, but transparent, thoughtful communication is a necessity, and shows respect. Talking about hard topics and being willing to compromise is the essence of maturity. And, fyi: there are a shit-ton of books on how to develop communication skills, so no excuses for being a crappy communicator.

2. They are brave. Allies are willing to step up and explain, point out, or if needed, call out others who are behaving badly. Doing so may lead to a loss of status, but allies know that life is short, and when the opportunity to right a wrong arises, one should do so.

3. They create opportunities and give people space. Allies recognize that a strong field is one in which a variety of people are given the opportunity to be awesome. Allies use their power and status to create opportunities for a diverse group of scientists, not simply white men (or white women) who are already at the top. Allies don’t jump in front of junior scientists in the literature; they seek them out, collaborate, or coordinate publication.

4. They give credit where credit is due. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Allies recognize and credit people for their work.

5. They do not use people. Allies do not, for example, ask a woman academic for advice/background for an opportunity under the guise of collaboration, and then turn around and exclude her from said opportunity after getting useful information. And then turn around and fault her for being upset about it.

6. They do not constantly self-promote. Allies recognize they do not need to be the center of attention at all times.

7. They take care in how they center the narrative. If someone points out when a person’s actions have been harmful, they do not first and foremost feel sorry for the person who garnered him/herself some unflattering attention. Instead, allies center the conversation on how the actions might have harmed, and think about it from a historical and/or broader perspective.

8. They listen when being told they have done something problematic or hurtful. Effective allies recognize they will totally screw up at times, and are willing and capable of listening when it is time to listen.

9. They think deliberately about who they collaborate with. As a result, their publications do not look like a manel line-up.

10. They understand the importance of a real apology. Refusing to make an apology to someone who feels wronged by your actions is a clear indicator that you do not see that person as a person. If you have caused someone offense, apologize, even if you do not yet have the tools to understand the offense. Then do the work to develop your empathy.

Some of you reading this may be thinking, ‘Hold up. This blog post is very geared toward men behaving badly and there are definitely women who are jerks,’ and that is a super fair point. Further, although it is clear that sexism and misogyny are responsible for negative career outcomes for women, it is important to recognize that there are other groups–persons of color, LGBTQIA, disabled scientists–that also experience shitty behavior, and that these identities can intersect with gender, leading to even worse treatment and outcomes. I hope that the above characteristics of allies–or just super cool thoughtful humans–can work as guideposts as we think through how our actions can create both positive and negative experiences for others.

The above characteristics are non-exhaustive, and mostly stem from my observations of both supportive and shitty behaviors. I’m certain I am leaving important characteristics out, and if there is something that strikes you as particularly relevant, or something you’d like people to place a higher emphasis on, drop it in the comments.

Creating environments where it’s okay to make mistakes and ask questions

When I first started at Georgia Tech, I had the tremendously good fortune to hire a really, really, really good technician. (One of my first blog posts was on hiring a tech vs. a postdoc when starting a new lab.) Jessie was an amazing technician for a whole bunch of reasons, including that she was really good at working with undergrads in the lab.

At one point, I was in the lab while she was training a new student in the lab and I heard her say something like, “I’m not sure if I did a good job of explaining that. Can you tell me what you heard so I can try again if I didn’t explain it well?” I loved that approach. It made it so that, if the student got something wrong when they explained it back or tried it the first time, it wasn’t their fault – it was that it hadn’t been explained well enough.

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Changes I made the last time I taught that I think were useful

The last time I taught Intro Bio (in Fall 2017), I felt like things went really well in terms of interacting with students. And, while they’re a flawed metric, my teaching evaluations were notably higher than they’d been in the past. I mentioned that to a friend, who knew I had set goals before the semester about what I was going to do differently, and asked if I could write them out. So I did. And then I forgot I had done that.

In May, I wrote a post on a small change I made to try to make it clearer to students that I really care a lot about their learning. The short version is: before answering a question a student asked in class, I tried to do more to signal that I appreciated them asking the question. In the comments section, someone asked if it improved my teaching evaluations. My answer was “My student evaluations were unusually high after I did this, but I changed a few things so it’s hard to know how much of an effect this had. I wrote out all the changes for a colleague who was curious, and it might be worth turning that into a blog post.”

So, here is a modified version of what I sent my frolleague (friend + colleague = frolleague!):

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Cohort-based mentoring for graduate students: a “bright spot” worth emulating?

I recently learned about an approach to mentoring that I think has a lot of potential. My initial conversations with others suggests they think it has promise, too. The goal of this post is both to share the idea and to (hopefully!) hear from people with experience with this approach.

Here’s the general idea: some larger graduate programs at Michigan use an approach where each cohort is assigned a mentor. So, there is one mentor for all of the first year students, a different one for all of the second year students, etc. That person is an additional resource for those students – someone who they can turn to for advice. They also host regular events (I think maybe ~monthly) for the cohort, which helps them develop skills, explore different topics, and crucially, helps build community.*

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To be sure: advice for writing discussions

When we write, we hopefully have a point we want to make. Brian has called on us to view ourselves as story tellers when writing manuscripts, embracing

the art of story-telling that knows where it is going and does it crisply so that it sucks us in and carries us along with just the right amount of time spent on details of character and setting. Where the characters (questions), the plot (story arc), the setting, the theme (the one sentence take home message) all work together to make a cohesive whole that is greater than the sum of the parts

In doing so, Brian says:

Every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every section of the paper should be working together, like a well-synchronized team of rowers all pulling towards one common goal. The introduction should introduce the questions in a way that gives them emotional pull and leaves us desperate to know the answer. The methods and results should be a page-turning path towards the answer. And the discussion should be your chance to remind the reader of the story arc you have taken them on and draw sweeping conclusions from it. Any freeloading sentence or paragraph that pulls in a different direction should be mercilessly jettisoned (or at least pushed to supplemental material).

In this post, I am going to disagree with Brian’s last point (gasp! blogging drama!), but, in doing so, I am motivated by the same goal. When trying to make a convincing argument, it can help to address the most obvious concern or counterargument. As you are leading the reader towards your exciting, sweeping conclusion, you don’t want some part of their brain thinking “Well, I guess they are unaware of this thing that sure seems like a problem for their argument.” If it’s something that a reasonably well-informed reader might be wondering about or distracted by, you should consider directly addressing it in the discussion. (This is also important in terms of not over-selling your results.)

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On getting—and giving—well-meaning but bad advice

Listen to other people’s advice, but that doesn’t mean you should follow it.

– Janet Currie, as quoted in Air & Light & Time & Space by Helen Sword

When I was thinking about coming up for promotion to full professor, I asked some senior colleagues whether they thought it would make sense. Two senior colleagues independently said that, while they thought I was definitely deserving of promotion, they were worried that I hadn’t done enough teaching at Michigan; they thought that might cause problems for promotion. I had actually taught somewhat more than I should have, but had had several leaves, including based on having two children at Michigan. These colleagues were concerned that those gaps in my teaching record might cause problems for promotion. I decided to come up for promotion anyway—I felt confident I could write a strong teaching statement. I was promoted…and got a teaching award as part of the process.

I truly think my colleagues had my best interests in mind when they gave the advice—they have been incredibly strong advocates for women in science. (Indeed, they have surely contributed to a climate and culture that has allowed me to be successful.) But, in my case, following their advice would have led to me postponing a promotion, which would have meant postponing the raise & other benefits that come with it. As one example of the latter—I don’t think I would have been able to do some of the things I’ve done this past year related to grad student mental health without being at the full professor rank.

In the past few months, I’ve shared this story a couple of times, using it as an anecdote about how some people mean well but end up giving advice that isn’t in the best interests of the advisee. Now, based on the results of the poll we did on listing parental & other leaves on CVs, I’m realizing that I have probably* been doing the same thing. I have been advising people not to list parental leave on CVs. I didn’t have direct evidence of listing leaves on a CV being used against anyone, but was focusing on the downsides (we know some people doubt whether moms will really be committed to their work) and not on potential upsides (that committee members might productively use that information).

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Poll results: Good news! Listing parental or family leave on your CV seems more likely to help than to hurt. More committees should give applicants opportunities to list major life events.

Recently, we did a poll asking about parental or other family leave and CVs. It was prompted by both a blog post by Athene Donald, who argues that people should include leaves on their CVs and an email from Tess Grainger who asked:

Is there is any evidence of bias related to parental leave, or it a thing of the past? How many people have been on a search committee (recently) in which someone indicated any kind of negative bias associated with a parental leave (or leave for illness, eldercare etc.)? Is this something that still happens, or should I and others not hesitate put these leaves in our records?

Poll results are below, but the brief answer to Tess’s questions seems to be that listing parental leave on a CV is unlikely to have a big impact but, if these poll responses are indicative of the field as a whole, listing leave seems more likely to help than to hurt. In many countries, applicants are already given specific guidance on when/where/how to list leaves on CVs. At the end of this post, I call on North American search committees (especially those in the US, where we are way behind on this front) to start routinely giving applicants the opportunity to list leaves, career interruptions, and major life events.

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Making office hours more accessible: should we be calling them student hours and recording them? What else can we do?

Recently, I’ve been involved in a few discussions related to office hours and how to make them more accessible. There are many instructors, myself included, who would love to have more students come to office hours—I think lots of students would benefit from coming, but most don’t come (and that’s even though we have a relatively good turnout at office hours for a class our size). There are many, complex reasons why students do not come to office hours, but probably some key things are:

  • Not realizing what (or who!) they are for
  • Not feeling safe showing up to them (e.g., out of fear of looking bad in front of the instructor)
  • Not being able to make it to them (e.g., because of work or childcare)

The solution to the first one seemed so obvious once I saw this tweet:

https://twitter.com/amy_nusbaum/status/1100440431500775424

From the twitter reactions, I know I am not alone in wondering how this never occurred to me—it’s a great idea! It, along with having some more information in the syllabus about what student hours are for, starts to address the second point, too. But that point and the following one can’t be fully addressed by a name change. When I was emailing about this with a colleague, she jokingly replied that maybe we should call them “FREE ADDITIONAL INSTRUCTION THAT SOMEONE ALREADY PAID FOR WHY DON’T YOU COME???”, then immediately added: “Just kidding – I never went either. I always had to work and was too shy to ask someone to adjust around my work schedule.”

So, I was really intrigued to learn recently that a colleague of mine at Michigan, John Montgomery, records his office hours (which he calls “Open Discussion”). Michigan has a lecture capture system set up in classrooms. I use this for my lectures, which are all recorded and made available to students via the course website. Recording my lectures helps students review material, plus makes it easier for students who need to miss lecture (e.g., because they are sick) to catch up. It had never occurred to me to recording office hours/student hours, but, imilar to the “student hours” solution, it seems obvious in retrospect.

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Seagulling, ego itching powder, supporting one another, and happiness

A friend recently shared an episode of the 10% Happier podcast with me, in which the podcast host, Dan Harris, interviews Johann Hari about his new book, Lost Connections. When listening to it, I kept being struck by the connections to academia. One of the first connections occurs right at the beginning, when he notes that, when it comes to understanding the reasons for the rise in mental health conditions, we need to focus not just on chemical imbalances but also power imbalances. Indeed!

But the main thing I wanted to focus on in this blog post is about another part of the podcast, where Hari talks about how our society is set up in a way that is basically like ego itching powder—we are constantly encouraged to think about ourselves and whether we’re getting ahead and getting enough attention and stuff. About 25 minutes into the episode, Hari talks about:

go[ing] through the day in this ego-itching-powder mode, which the environment sets us up to do, which is: your gain is my loss, we’re in a race for scarce resources and it’s like we’re rushing out of a burning building and I’ve got to clamber over you, I’ve got to fight for every moment of what I get, and if you get ahead of me that places me in danger.

He’s talking about society in general but, of course, this applies to academia, too—academia definitely pours ego itching powder on us regularly.

Hari also talks about research that was done asking whether people can set out to make themselves happier if they try. (This is about 30 minutes into the episode.) The answer is: not if they live in the US, but yes in several other countries where this has been studied. The reason for the difference is that, in the US, we try to make ourselves happier by doing something for ourselves—maybe we buy ourselves a new pair of shoes or some chocolate or something like that—or worse, as the podcast host Dan Harris suggested: we try to crush our enemies at work. Hari compares this to trying to get your legs out of quicksand by reaching your arms and trying to grab your legs—it just makes things worse.

In contrast, in the other countries that were studied (Russia, Japan, and Taiwan), people were able to make themselves happier. That’s because in those countries, people try to make themselves happier by doing something for someone else—a friend, a family member, their community. Doing things for other people ends up making you feel happier.

Right after listening to this, I had a day where someone seagulled something research-related that I had worked on for years and was proud of—he swooped in, shit all over it, and then flew off to leave me to deal with the mess.* It made me feel bad for the rest of the day. I slept terribly, and I still felt bad the next day.

It turns out, though, that my schedule that day was filled with projects related to graduate student mental health. I was working on two different but related projects that are aimed at better supporting graduate student mental health. I spent the day working hard on them, and, at the end of the day, realized I was feeling good and hadn’t devoted any mental energy to Mr. Seagull since I had started working on the mental health projects. It doesn’t mean that what he did was okay—it wasn’t—but it was interesting to me how little it was bothering me after I’d focused on these other projects.

As I’ve been reflecting on this, I’ve been thinking about Brian’s old post on whether deans are making the same error as hen breeders. We have largely set up a culture in academia where we not only pour ego itching powder all over everyone all the time, but we also often inadvertently select against working collaboratively and trying to boost each other.

I know that I am incredibly fortunate to be in a position where I have a lot of flexibility in terms of what I work on—where I have the flexibility to choose to devote a substantial amount of time to working on projects such as the ones on student mental health. But I think this general idea can apply differently to different people at different career stages.

A year or so ago, I was on a panel with a graduate student, Leslie Decker, who said she wished someone had told her right at the start of grad school that others’ success would not prevent her own. She noted that success is not finite, and the ability of those around you to succeed does not detract from your own progress. She suggested that we should take heart in that fact and support one another.

She’s right.

 

 

* For the birders, yes, I am aware that “seagull” is not a technical term and that some of you will argue with this characterization of gulls. For folks in Britain who are aware of another meaning of the term “seagull”, yes, I am aware of it, too. I do not care about either of these objections to the term.

On listening and responding to students: A small shift I made to be more encouraging to students who ask questions

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently had a piece that focused on “How to Listen”. When I saw the title, I immediately clicked on it because I’ve been thinking a lot about mentoring and how to help people build skills that will allow for better mentoring relationships. Communication skills are clearly important for mentoring, and obviously communication is only effective if someone is listening. But while I clicked on it in that context, what ended up striking me the most was how it relates to a teaching challenge I had faced.

Near the beginning of the piece, the author, David D. Perlmutter, says,

Don’t just listen — show you’re listening. Many people have habits that betray us when we are not paying attention: wandering eyes, fidgeting, tapping fingers, and, everyone’s favorite, cutting off the speaker in midsentence. In administration, almost as important as listening is that people perceive you to be.

Here lies the rub for academic administrators: Most of the concerns brought to us are remarkably limited in variety. Often the answer or solution is evident long before someone has finished explaining the problem. Nevertheless, good listening involves steeling yourself to silence.

Sometimes what we learn from a conversation or a public forum is less a set of facts and figures than a confirmation of emotions and feelings. If you jump in too quickly, you risk coming off as brusque, inattentive, and, yes, a poor listener — even if you deliver the wisdom of Solomon.

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