Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Towards a Language for Physicists and Astronomers to Discuss Sexism

(HT Carole Mundell)

Last summer, the American Physical Society's journal Physical Review Physics Education Research published a focused collection on gender. In their contribution, "Gender discrimination in physics and astronomy: Graduate student experiences of sexism and gender microaggressions", Ramón Barthelemy, Melinda McCormick and Charles Henderson tell us what they learned from semi-structured interviews with 21 predominantly white, middle-class women pursuing PhDs in physics, astronomy or astrophysics at "major research universities that are highly ranked and respected in the physics and astronomy communities".

They found that 5 had no experiences they would attribute specifically to gender, 2 had positive gender experiences, 5 experienced overt gender-based hostility, and 16 experienced the ambiguously negative encounters that are commonly called "microaggressions". Interestingly, the purpose of the paper isn't actually to establish prevalence but, rather, "to share the gendered experiences of successful women in pursuit of their educations in physics or astronomy, while also demonstrating a language for physicists and astronomers to discuss sexism in their departments" (p. 12).

Since they are explicitly suggesting their results as a "demonstration" of a "language to discuss sexism", I'm a bit concerned about the way they have coded their interviews. It seems to me that they are calibrating their instrument in an overly sensitive way.

Here's an example of a form of sexual objectification that the paper classifies as a "microaggression". A female PhD students explained that:

At conferences I feel like I get a lot of attention at my posters because, I don’t know, I feel like people want to come talk to the friendly young girl and maybe they don’t want to talk to some guy. (P. 8)

As I understand this, the decision to talk to a "friendly young girl" rather than "some guy" at a poster session is here being counted as a microaggression. That is, if you find yourself at a poster session and a woman catches your eye, you should not try to strike up a conversation with her. The argument, I guess, is that she's "at work", so you should only talk to her if you actually find her poster interesting.

To me, the obvious solution here is for pretty young women to get used to the attention of men and to brush them off if they aren't asking them anything interesting about the poster. Or, conversely, if no one is actually interested in the poster, to enjoy the company of an interested man to pass the time. To count this as evidence of sexism in science strikes me as absolutely ridiculous.

But it gets worse when we go beyond the microaggressions. Here's an example of "hostile sexism" that is given in the paper. An interviewee recounts an experience from high school:

Many of the boys in [the AP physics] class expressed interest in engineering. When it got around to me, I responded that I wanted to major in physics. The teacher raised an eyebrow and said “Oh, so you’re going to be a waitress”. (P. 10)

I suspect this is just a misunderstanding. Suppose the same thing had happened in a high-school English class and everyone had been expressing an interest in journalism. Then a boy says he wants to major in poetry. And the teacher now jokingly says, "Oh, so you're going to be a barista." Similarly, I don't think the point here was that girls can't do physics. It was that the road from high-school physics to a paying job normally runs through engineering. It was the idea that you could actually be a full-time physicist that the teacher found implausible.

Now, it's possible he wouldn't have made the joke if the aspiring physicist had been a boy. But that doesn't make it a sexist joke. In any case, to code this as "hostile sexism", i.e., as something worse than a microaggression, suggests to me that the instrument is going to give us way too many false positives.

I've reached out to the authors with my concerns and will report back when I hear from them. After all, I too think we need to learn how to talk about sexism in science.

Ignorance is Bliss

"The author assumes authority to propose a readily available course of study, indicated in a set of drawings by the author, together with directions, explanations and comment based upon his observation and experience." (Oliver Senior, How to Draw Hands)

In my response to Randy Westgren's comment on my last post, I came up with a formulation that has a more general application. I think our thinking about society should begin with an assumption of political sovereignty, not scientific ignorance. We should approach social problems from the vantage of the power we have, not the knowledge we lack. I have said before that a "knowledge society" is, in an important sense, founded on the opposite assumption, always trying to solve our social problems by ameliorating a knowledge deficit.

It gives a particular meaning to the old adage "ignorance is bliss". When faced with an obvious injustice, like poverty, we immediately absolve ourselves of guilt by invoking our ignorance. We tell ourselves we don't know how to fix the problem. I think the same thing happens in writing instruction, which is why I proposed a "counter-revolution". It's not that we don't know how students can become better writers. It's that we don't want to tell them what to do.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Anytime Soon

In a post about something completely different, Freddie deBoer makes the following sobering observation about political discussion today:

None of this is about plausibility. It’s fine to debate outcomes you can’t achieve. There’s a debate that’s been raging in my weird little political circles about whether we should support a universal basic income or a job guarantee, and it has become nasty in some instances, with accusations of one side being useful idiots for libertarians, the other for corporatists. On first blanch, this is silly – we’re not going to get either of those things. Not anytime soon. But I still value the debate because we need to define our goals for the future, and whatever else is true, the people debating have clear differences in what they want to happen. That’s important.

As I said in my comment to his post, I’ve long tried to figure out how to respond to this (very sensible) point. But what do we really mean by "not anytime soon". The only way to implement a UBI, as far as I can tell, is to phase it in over at least two decades, while phasing out the corresponding means-tested welfare payments. "Not anytime soon" can mean we’re not going start moving in the right direction in the foreseeable future, or just that we won’t have it fully implemented within a generation. I'll easily grant the latter, but I think we can start the process very soon indeed.

I agree with deBoer that we should be discussing this now, but not just because we need to have articulate goals. We should be debating the goal in a way that amounts to debating how to implement it. Some people are against basic income, not because they oppose the end goal, but because they can’t see how to get there from here. They need to be shown a 20-year plan in which welfare payments are replaced gradually with a UBI (from $1000/year and increasing over a decade or to around $12000/year) that is taxed back from working people so they feel no difference in take-home pay. (And there would be no bottom line difference on the budget.) They would only feel a difference the day they lose their job and are now automatically insured. (That is, instead of having to apply for unemployment benefits, they would simply lose the wage component of their income, keeping the basic component.) That, roughly, is the plan that should be discussed.

Now, I also believe that we should talk about phasing out all taxes other than a land tax. And I think it would be great to run the two processes in parallel. Ideally, you'd have a twenty-year period with ordinary economic growth, increasing UBI, decreasing wages, decreasing income and sales taxes, and increasing taxes on land. Also, you'd want to replace the debt-based monetary system with one in which the money is created as purchasing power, i.e, the UBI + government spending. (The only check on inflation would be the land tax. Indeed, that would be the primary purpose of the land tax, which would ensure that money had "value", namely, as the only legal means landowners would have to cover their taxes. If you want to own land you'd have to satisfy demand in the population.)

But my tax proposal is only something that can plausibly be argued once the basic UBI implementation makes sense. Interestingly, in my mind at least, once someone has granted that the UBI can be implemented in something like the way I propose, the end of income taxes follows naturally.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Scissors or Zipper?

The gender gap in the sciences is often illustrated with the "scissors diagram". It represents the fact that there are generally more undergraduate women than men, rough parity among graduate students, but then increasingly more men as we move up the career ladder to full professor. But perhaps "scissors", with its connotation of "pivot" and "leverage" is the wrong metaphor. Look at this overlay of two "scissors" from 2007 and 2013 (taken from this 2015 report):

It looks like the "pivot" is moving to the right, i.e., up the career ladder, as one would expect if the gap is being closed over time. And what this suggests is not that doctoral programs are a pivot that exerts leverage on women, keeping them out of academia, but rather that it is, today, the point at which the male and female populations are converging. There is no reason to think this process won't continue.

No one, I think, expects the gap to close overnight. So any disagreements here are really about the rate of change not the current "status of women". My question to feminists*, then, is simply this: in so far as the current (or 2013) situation is "problematic", how far to the right do you think the zipper should have moved by now (or 2013)?

*Update: It has been (and may still be) fashionable to argue about the definition of "feminism". Who am I addressing this question to? I don't consider feminism to be merely the belief that "men and women are equal" but rather an ideology and a movement that aims to bring about that equality. That is, I take feminism to be the view that men and women ought to be but are not yet treated as equals. Specifically, in this post, I point out that feminism is a particular kind of impatience with the actual "status of women" in society (here, specifically, the part of society that does science). In that sense, I am not a feminist. To me, the data shows that moral and political equality has been achieved, and we're merely waiting for the effects of this equality to work itself out over a generation or two. We do not need any particular ideological or political labor to maintain the process and, certainly, not to expedite it. That is, I don't think we "need feminism" any longer. Feminists, of course, disagree about this. And I'm here basically trying to gauge the seriousness of that disagreement. After all, I expect the zipper to close the gap to within 20% (in different directions for different disciplines) within about thirty years. I think that outcome is perfectly acceptable, and I definitely think anything above 50% (e.g., 75% male) is very likely an effect of discrimination. The point is just that it's an effect of past discrimination, which was very overt. Not the sort of "implicit bias" that today's feminists are fighting. I believe that that fight does more harm than good.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Motivation and Feedback

Andrew Gelman has left a thoughtful comment on my post joining Freddie deBoer's applause for Doug Hesse's prescriptions for composition. My response is going to be a bit disjointed, but I've already left it longer than I wanted.

I definitely agree with Andrew's general point that "motivation to practice" is important. The intrinsic motivation to practice specifically writing is that being able to write down what you know is a valuable skill. Not just in school, but in life. But what's the role of the teacher in motivating students? Where should the value of writing come from? How can it be demonstrated to the student?

Andrew emphasizes feedback. I agree that feedback is important but I want to stress that there are all kinds of feedback that don't need to come from teachers. Students can give themselves and each other feedback simply by reading their texts out loud. Moreover, in my experience, the issue of feedback is a resource allocation problem. An teacher who spends a lot of time providing detailed written feedback on assignments is often wasting much of their time. Many of the students don't read the feedback very closely. Many of them don't understand it. Many students end up merely letting it confirm their suspicion that they don't know how to write.

What is needed is a way of giving feedback to students who are, let's say, motivated to use it going forward. My model is simple. Tell students to write individual paragraphs at pre-determined times. Then have them share those paragraphs with their fellow students. The students who are giving feedback should do simple things like read the paragraph out loud back to the writer and point to the key sentence. They should say something about whether they took the paragraph to elaborate or support the key sentence. They should tell the writer what they got out of it and whether they "liked" reading it.

This gives the student a little more information than they could give themselves. But reading your own paragraph out loud does immediately tell you a great deal about how well it is written and which sentences aren't working. Now, whether it comes from you or from someone else, the important thing is not to take feedback as some sort of final judgment. It is merely input that will inform what you are doing in your next few writing sessions. That's absolutely crucial: you can only use feedback if you are practicing deliberately, one paragraph at a time, for weeks and weeks. If you simply throw a text together the night before and give it to your teacher, you are not being told anything about how good are at what you are doing. Properly speaking, you aren't doing anything very specific.

A good way of motivating students to receive feedback is to begin with a rewriting instruction. The students submit their work and you read it. Then, instead of telling them "what's wrong with it" (or even what's good about it), tell them to rewrite the paragraphs that you want to talk about. Ask them to spend an hour doing it again (i.e., rewriting three paragraphs, 18 minutes each). Your "feedback", in the first instance, is now simply to suggest that they will learn something by rewriting a particular paragraph. You might ask them to notice something—like the length of the sentences, or the use of references, or even just spelling—but you're mainly saying that there's something there to notice in this paragraph. Something that their writing suggests they are able to see, but perhaps don't quite understand the importance of.

And this brings us back to intrinsic motivation. Feedback should identify the skills a piece of writing demonstrates that the writer almost masters. It should direct them towards those skills and thereby give them the experiencing of getting it right. If this sort of feedback is done right, the student the will immediately feel the value of the skill they are learning. This will key into their intrinsic motivation to write better.