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Diversity statement woes April 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, feminism, science, teaching, work.
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One of the newer things I’ve seen in academic job postings is a request for a diversity statement.  If you haven’t seen them, it’s a statement addressing how you would address issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. I came across a request for one recently, and I have to admit that they make me cringe for a couple reasons.  On the surface, they make a lot of sense: obviously if you have a diverse student body, you want to make sure that you’re hiring someone who is aware of that and has communicated all they ways they are prepared to deal with it.

So why do they make me cringe?

First, I see a potential for abuse.  Academics tend to, on the whole, be a rather liberal lot, and one could easily see this as a screening mechanism to ensure that someone with a wildly different perspective doesn’t make it through the door.  While I personally find it frustrating that people have issues with marginalized groups (and FSM knows how much of this I’ve dealt with first hand), I still think this means that people with differing viewpoints will be weeded out.  I don’t see an easy answer to this, though.  As I said above, you don’t want to hire someone who refuses to work with these groups or who creates an asymmetric educational experience for them lest, as an institution, you end up on the receiving end of a discrimination lawsuit.  I’m just going to throw that out as a concern and leave it there.

My other concern, though, is more grounded in my background.  These requests are severely biased towards those in the humanities and soft sciences where many of them can use part of their course topics and research as evidence. If you’re in the hard sciences, that’s obviously not an option.  If you have access to resources to address this at all, it may be dependent on institutional support which may or may not be present. In the sciences, training for education/teaching at all is severely limited to begin with and what we do get has to be sought out through other departments in the university, if it’s even available.  Depending on the size of the institution, there may not be a women’s center or diversity office to provide information and training.

As I’ve been contemplating writing such a statement, it leaves me in an odd spot.  I could personally use some of my blogging about women in the sciences.  However, depending on who is reviewing the statement, I may also get dinged because this may be viewed critically rather than as an asset.  The same goes for membership in female-oriented professional societies such as IEEE Women in Engineering, Society of Women Engineers, or Association of Women Geoscientists.  Realistically, some people who review these statements will have a negative view of such participation and advocacy even while the statements are a required part of the application package.  Let’s be honest: not everyone sees the need to increase or address diversity in their departments, and being too much of an advocate could have negative repercussions during the selection process.

My personal feeling is that, in STEM, a lot of these issues are going to be limited to classroom accessibility and student mentoring.  I would prefer that universities could ask STEM faculty how inclusivity of these groups would be addressed as part of the teaching statement and omit requests for a diversity statement.



Making an impression March 20, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in grad school.
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mckayla is not impressed

Female Science Professor recently discussed behavior differences at department visits between already admitted grad students and those who were still waiting to hear.  In particular, she asks, of students:

What was your attitude during your visit? Did you try to impress, or was your attitude that it was entirely the responsibility of the program to impress you?

I have to admit that this question made me cringe because my inclination was to answer, “Neither.”  I’m not one who likes to ‘impress’ people.  I like to get to know them and how they operate.  To me, trying to impress someone implies a certain amount of salesmanship and maybe even a little bit of dishonesty.  I understand trying to put one’s best foot forward, but, to me, that’s different than making an attempt to impress.  (I know I may be making a big deal of this distinction, but it makes for a much more interesting blog post than simply saying yes or no.)

Actually, I was a bit surprised by this whole notion as I took a different approach when looking at grad schools: I went and visited them first in order to decide whether or not it was worth applying.  I liked this approach as there wasn’t much pressure on either side: I knew about the program and profs based on what I saw on the web, and they didn’t know if I was a student worth having, so they weren’t as likely to give me a dog and pony show.

gallagheronbellascage (The cats and guinea pigs were feeling left out, so we should make a separate show for them.)

Visiting before I applied gave a much more realistic impression than one gets during an admitted student weekend or something similar when everyone is on their ‘best behavior’, to the point of being fake, and the activities are highly scripted, to the point of creating unrealistic expectations.  (I do see such events as useful to pick out people who really make a terrible impression.)  My later experiences confirmed my ‘gut reaction’ to the pre-application visits, so my only caution is to not ignore those impressions or rationalize them away…or let those accepted student weekends override the early impressions.

I also think this minimizes the ‘workload’ to both sides: less applications for the student, only serious students applying to the program.  I remember at one visit weekend, I spent some time with another applicant who was very negative about the program we were checking.  She clearly hated the place, and it made me wonder why she’d bothered applying.  I wondered until I realized that, unlike me, she hadn’t been there before.

The down side is that it’s not always possible, especially financially, for students to go and visit other programs.  This is especially true if the only time to visit is the summer and professors are unavailable, mitigating the benefit.  It’s even worse if that prof’s students are also gone so that you can’t have a chance to talk with them about the prof you’d like to work with.

My answer to the above questions is that I never tried to impress anyone, nor did I want them attempt to impress me.  I wanted to see how the people and place functioned and whether I could see myself there.  It’s going to be the fit that matters, and visiting grad schools is going to be to everyone’s benefit when the view of the place and people involved is realistic.

Book Review: Crazy U April 6, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, older son.
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I have about 10 books on my nightstand.  Looking at them a couple weeks ago, I decided that none of them sounded fun to read. I’d recently read an article on the book Crazy U and thought I’d check it out because I needed something more light-hearted than the physics books and biographies lying there.

For those of you not familiar with the book, it is written by Andrew Ferguson about his son’s experience applying to college.  Given my older boy is a teenager and there have been more than a few discussions about college, I thought maybe the book would give me a humorous perspective on the whole experience.

I guess I’m very surprised at how my son is approaching this because it’s very different from what I did.  I was the one who chose where to go, did all the leg work on the applications, wrote all my own essays (and can’t even remember if I asked anyone to proof them for me – I may not have), and agonized all through high school about how I would manage to pay for it all.  I was blessed with a bit of guidance on the application process from a professor at the university.  My parents’ contribution was to pay for an SAT prep course and to fill out my FAFSA, late (that is, after my first choice college had passed the financial aid application deadline).  It’s not their fault: neither had college degrees and neither had ever tried to go any place for college except for the state school, which has minimal requirements.  They had no idea what it was all about, other than that getting a college degree was important.  Given what a big deal it was to me, I’m perplexed by my son.  He’s more of the I’ll-worry-about-it-junior-year type.  I guess that’s better than waiting until senior year.

Ferguson begins his journey during his son’s junior year, when promotional materials from a couple schools show up.  He decides to look into professional counselors for some guidance, and is told he’s started about 3 years too late…or maybe more.  His whole perspective is very funny, and his cynicism is refreshing.  Reading the book, however, has been a more sobering experience than I thought.  Being in grad school with hopes to stay in academia perhaps has given me a very skewed view of the university.  The book is written from the perspective of someone who is not in academia and hasn’t been since he left college.  When you look at it from the outside in, you kind of realize how ridiculous the whole rat race is.

The book is well researched and informative…and this is what gives rise to the cynicism.  By the same token, this person is one who desperately wants his kid to go to college.  He talks about several contradictions in what colleges say and what they do, such as how they don’t want to have to market their schools and yet spend tons of money to do so.  He talks about US News rankings, getting the perspective of the statistician who supervises all the calculations.  He then discusses how schools simultaneously condemn them and yet do a lot to make themselves look better, including changing their data.  He talks about how the schools are all similar – similar materials, similar emphasis, similar groups on campus, and even similar tours.

And reading through this, I have realized how ridiculous all of it looks.  As a parent, I am thinking that maybe it’s a good thing my son isn’t drinking the kool-aid.  This was especially obvious when Ferguson discusses a tour of Harvard, realizing, with all the other parents in the room, that Harvard wants everyone to apply, even if it’s obvious a person doesn’t have a chance…which, realistically, they don’t.

I appreciate a lot of the insight in how parents feel while going through the process.  One very memorable discussion is how preparing a kid for college is, in essence, making yourself obsolete.  I know this is true of parenting in general, but I wonder how I’ll feel about it once I’m staring it in the face.

Overall, I have really enjoyed the book.  I like books that are informative as well as funny, so I consider the different perspectives and information on the process a bonus to the humor.  And really, the best perspective I could have is to realize how ridiculous it is…and that maybe waiting until junior year won’t be the travesty I’d feared it could be.

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