Now I am Five*

This week I was stalking people. Professionally of course. As a Trustee of the Science Museum a group of us were invited to do some ‘Gallery Observations’ of visitors to get a sense of how they interact with the exhibits. Of course stalking is too strong a word, but observing we most certainly were.

I saw a group of three teenage girls, one of whom wanted to stop and stare, perhaps even think, but she was being constantly dragged off by her companions. I saw a pair who were obviously more interested in each other than what was on show, but nevertheless they occasionally perused a label or pointed and giggled at some old-fashioned artefact (I had never thought of the Museum as a dating venue but – why not?). There were many families, it being the height of the school holidays, with their own internal group dynamics: pushy parents, those being dragged around by enthusiastic (or whiney) children and grandparents desperately trying to keep control of exuberant toddlers.

Who is the Museum for? How should they cater for the different population segments? What can be done better? This was the point of the exercise and very informative it was for me too, if only to make me appreciate the challenge lurking behind those questions. It made me think how those questions equally apply to my blog. My blog that is, astonishingly enough, now a healthy child of 5. Its 5th birthday passed without me noticing just a week or so ago. A good moment for reflection.

So, the key question must be: whom am I writing for? Leaving aside the obvious answer of I’m doing it for myself – because it’s fun and it gives me a chance to be creative – my answer is, I think, similar to the question around the Science Museum visitors: I want it to cater for diverse audiences. My initial intention was to write mainly about interdisciplinary science and the challenges it faces (funding, for starters). I guess I thought I was going to be writing about science. As regular readers will know, that is not what I do. I am not writing for the keen 6th former who wants ready access to easily digestible cutting-edge science, nor for the grandmother trying to catch up on the science she wasn’t exposed to as a child. I am often referred to as a science communicator but my blog has in fact evolved mainly along the other lines I set out in that first post of August 22nd 2010

‘to post thoughts on work at the outer reaches of physics where it meets biology, and the challenges of working at that interface; some of my ideas and experiences as a senior woman physicist plus my reactions to discussions around this topic, and general initiatives in this area; and reactions to science policy, funding etc’.

These latter topics, much more than about interdisciplinary challenges and the detailed science itself, are what form the heart of my writing.

I choose to write about such a mixture of stuff deliberately to try to interest different sections of the potential readership. If I only wrote about women in science issues I believe my male readership might be relatively small. Since I want both men and women to read about these issues I try to space out those posts which are specifically about issues directly affecting women. And anyhow, I want to write about a range of topics which strike me as important and interesting at a particular point. I once saw blogging described as online mentoring (perhaps by one of my earliest role models Female Science Professor whose writing is now sadly mainly in abeyance; however, it may have been by someone else). I love that idea, although inevitably you cannot know if the mentee has actually been able to utilise any pearls of wisdom you try to throw their way, since you do not know who they are. They may be on the other side of the world or in the lab next door.

But other topics have regularly featured here. One type I used to enjoy writing was characterisation of people you might well meet in academic circles (as in the Committee Chair) – basically character assassination of certain types. Unfortunately, as Master of a Cambridge college I do not feel able to continue that line in case my fellowship nervously start trying to identify the culprits I appear to be dissecting. Indeed, I was rather apprehensive the College might be uncomfortable with me continuing to write at all. That has not been my experience for which I am grateful. For a period I sat on far too many committees and I wrote a lot about committee paperwork and coping strategies, but more recently I have had to endure fewer of such mind-numbing, paper-intensive meetings and that line of writing has also dried up, at least for now.

I have an occasional line in what I mentally think of as ‘lyrical’ posts, in so far as they are less embedded in the academic world. Ones based on places I’ve been or books I’ve read, for instance – or even on the importance of the bicycle to me. My life does not contain sufficient poetry that these could ever turn up often. Mainly my posts are simply triggered by something that has happened, to me or in the world in which I move. From time to time I wonder what would happen if I wrote something totally different: how would readers react if I decided to discuss rock music or football? Straying far from what is expected might lose me regular readers (although possibly gain me others). I don’t intend to do anything quite like that, but it is not clear to me whether one has to or should stick with the particular niche that one has fallen into.

One thing that is undeniable is that my writing is personal and in the first person. The whole joy I get from blog writing is that it is an escape from the passive voice beloved of scientific papers (although that style is beginning to fade a little). If my personal experience, my ‘authentic voice’ as I suspect life-coaches might have it, can encourage others that is a bonus that means a lot to me. Not all bloggers feel comfortable with such a personal voice, but one thing I have learned (it took me a while) is that I have control. I do not have to tell you my more humiliating anecdotes, share the details of my wider family or spill any other beans that I don’t want to. It is my choice. Everything I write may be honest, but I don’t honestly have to tell you everything. I believe that that personal voice has been appreciated, but I realise I never actually consciously decided to use it. It just turned out that way. If on day one I had chosen to write in more guarded tones I wonder what would have happened. I suspect I would have given up.

Although I may not know who my online mentees may be in many instances, I do know how many people have approached me (virtually or in person) and said how much they enjoy what I write. I will never have a regular and huge readership because the academic blog-reading scientific community is not massive. But the words of encouragement I receive from friends and strangers alike are hugely encouraging and mean a lot to me. It encourages me to keep writing, albeit at a slightly slower rate now I am out so many evenings through College and other activities (I used to find that time of day ideal for writing, when too tired to deal with more weighty matters but with enough energy to do something a little bit creative). Whether I will still be here in another five years who knows? But for now I hope the energy and ideas do not dry up and that I will still have the diverse audience I strive for coming back for more.

*With apologies to AA Milne

 

 

 

 

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7 Responses to Now I am Five*

  1. Coincidentally I have also been doing some light dusting around my blogs today. I’m also about five, although in that time I’ve skipped and hopped from blog to blog, platform to platform. I resolve to do better in the future, inspired by your example.

    The motivation for my tidy up was online mentoring or coaching and it’s interesting that you saw your blog as possibly a step in that direction. It was useful to revisit Female Science Professor’s blogpost on academic coaching and to read the comments from other readers. Thank you for the link.

    I think academic coaching is an idea whose time has come and I’m seriously thinking of giving it a go. Two physicist friends and colleagues already offer academic coaching online: Marialuisa Aliotta offers support with academic writing through her blog Academic Life’ https://academiclife.leadpages.net/pre-launch/ and Olga Degtyareva’s blog ‘Productivity for Scientists’ http://www.olgadegtyareva.com has helped many researchers ‘overcome overwhelm’. It makes sense to me to that academics, and those aspiring to be academics, should seek specific professional development of this kind and for it to be as normal as paying for counselling or life coaching or for a personal trainer.

    As you know, my interests are in PER (physics education research) and in supporting graduate teaching assistants as they learn to teach. This is not the fashionable arm of the galaxy. While dusting my blog today I came across this quotation:

    “Academic culture favours analysis over action; institutions have placed a high degree of importance on their reputations rather than on improving the academic performance of their students.” (Norris, 2008).

    We know that TAs and early career researchers with teaching duties are more likely than established colleagues to examine their beliefs about teaching but we also know they are less likely to convert changes in belief into new teaching practices. The barriers are granite-like institutional structures along with the ever-present potholes of existing beliefs about undergraduate learning including misperceptions of undergraduate motivations and abilities. Institutional approaches to the professional development of its teaching staff are often general and short when they need to be discipline based and of sufficient length to cover a complete design cycle from belief change to the change and evaluation of teaching practice. Academic coaching may offer a way around the roadblocks. Blogging as mentoring for professional change may be about to have its day in the sun.

  2. Hi Athene, you inspired me to blog after I left the RS in a hurry 3 years ago having served loyally for 14 years. I wanted to express myself openly without fear of being reprimanded. It still took a few years of blogging before I started to feel more confident. I’ve now found other outlets for my frustration with the system. But it’s great that you’ve continued and if you haven’t yet you must have an exchange with @headguruteacher about this. I’d put you both in the same category of blogging excellence.

  3. Marnie Dunsmore says:

    Dear Athene,

    I was just in London. I did not go to any of the science museums or any of the natural history museums.

    I went, with my husband’s cousin, who is from Salonika, to the Wallace Collection and Kenwood House. She’s doing her Master’s dissertation on Keats’ writing about medical philosophy as it relates to the Romantic Period.

    We do not have a pipeline problem as many, many studies indicate. We should stop devoting so many resources to pushing so many young people into science and engineering when there are so few secure well paying jobs in these fields.

    As I walked around London, I couldn’t help but notice the many gated well appointed homes with highly expensive cars parked out front, guarded by security people. Most of these people likely do not work as scientists or engineers, but in the financial industry.

    If we really care about the plight of scientists and engineers, there needs to be a more open discussion on job security, funding, unconscious and conscious bias, and compensation. Platitudes about wayward teenagers at science museums are mere distractions.

    • I am quite sure the Science Museum does not see itself as ‘pushing’ anyone into science, it is about broadening their experiences, views and knowledge. It isn’t about careers it is about curiosity. Nor do I think I was uttering platitudes about teenagers so much as curious myself about how the Museum is used and how people interact. I agree that (elsewhere) the kinds of conversations you refer to should be had, but that is not the Museum’s role.

      • Marnie Dunsmore says:

        Athene,

        Just to be clear, I do go to science museums and am a member of the Exploratorium and the California Academy of Science. My daughter even attended the Royal Tyrrell Museum Science camp this summer, which was superb.

        However, I suspect that our museum dollars are perhaps a little over spent in the last few years (at least here in the US and Canada) while more fundamental problems of the science and engineering workforce have been neglected.

        I also ran across this paper (in archaeology), which suggests that the professionalization of the archaeology workforce since the second world war has driven down the number of women in archaeology, and also, the paper suggests, more generally across scientific fields.

        http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=8261256&fulltextType=BT&fileId=S1380203811000134

        I do wonder why it isn’t the museum’s role to discussing how women have been excluded or the difficulties of career progression and low compensation for the majority, in scientific fields.

        There’s plenty of well done research on this topic. The book, “The Mind Has No Sex” comes to mind:

        http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674576254

        I never see these topics discussed in science museums. The number of women in science and engineering has remained stagnant for years and has even dropped in some fields. Why do you think that is? It’s not because women don’t fundamentally like science or engineering.

        I also know plenty of young people, men and women alike, who dropped out of science, not because they couldn’t do it, but because of the low pay, necessity of endless post docs, problems with the peer review process. I think we’re building a contingent of people who are extremely jaded toward science.

        It’s hard for me to take to seriously the active promotion of science over other fields anymore, especially given the other impediments to career progression that I have mentioned.

  4. Mark Field says:

    I imagine it feels like you are casting ideas into the void, but for those of us who read the blog it is more like a conversation that we are actively involved in.

    I might suggest something closer to A.A. Milne’s original title fits a little better: Now we are five.

    Next year you can use the full book title …

    “…
    Now I am six,
    I’m as clever as clever,
    So I think I’ll be six for ever and ever.”