Monday, November 10, 2014

Minnesota Taxes Support Pseudo-Scientific Claptrap

A colleague sent me this announcement from Mankato:

History Channel’s Scott Wolter to Give Special Talk in MankatoMankato Times MANKATO, MINN. – The Blue Earth County Library System is bringing Scott Wolter, author and host of History 2 (H2) Channel’s “America Unearthed”, to the Verizon Wireless Center on Thurs., Nov. 13, 2014 at 7 p.m. for a special program that is free and open to the public.  Wolter is a world-renowned forensic geologist and President of the Minnesota-based American Petrographic Services.  He began developing a new science called archaeopetrography, a scientific process used to date and understand the origins and mysterious stone artifacts and sites. The first artifact Wolter studied using this new science was the Kensington Rune Stone. Wolter will discuss his studies, discoveries and experiences with his television series in addition to answering questions from the audience following his presentation. This program is made possible through a Traverse des Sioux Library Cooperative Grant and Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.
Yup, that's Scott Wolter, pseudo-scientific archaeologist and peddler of conspiracy theories, about whom I've blogged before. Our sales tax dollars, through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, are supporting this. As I wrote in my letter to the editor the last time Wolter's name came up, giving him a bully pulpit does grave disservice to the cause of archaeology.

I feel another letter coming on...

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Coding Systems in Zooarchaeology

I've analyzed fauna on three continents, and I've worked with zooarchaeologists from a variety of academic and national backgrounds. We all have some system for coding fauna, that is, for quickly characterizing attributes of individual specimens, so the data can be used for quantitative and qualitative analysis.

Coding systems can be handed down along academic lineages. I use a system based on Chris Szuter's. I never worked with Chris, but as a young graduate student, I worked with older students who mentored me using the same coding system that they had learned from Chris when they themselves were young graduate students and she was the mentor. I'm currently working on fauna from the Marana Platform Mound site, and much of the analyzed fauna is in Chris's code, since she was the first to work there.

Chris Szuter's system influenced a generation of Southwestern faunal analysts, and it's easy to see how coding systems can become regional. Faunal analysis requires what is essentially an apprenticeship: you need to work on real archaeological bone with an experienced supervisor in order to master the skill.* There are a limited number of faunal analysts teaching in large graduate programs, and they influence many students, both in academia and CRM; their influence is often focused in particular geographic regions. This, for example, is why my coding system was influenced by Chris, even though my approach to zooarchaeological research in general was inspired by my graduate advisor, Mary Stiner. Mary's work was/is my research foundation, but she works in a different part of the world, so I use a Southwestern coding system while applying Old World research questions.

When I code, I use a spreadsheet rather than a database (or an index card!), and for each identifiable specimen I include information on taxon, bone, portion of bone, side, fusion, burning, type of breakage, weathering, non-human animal modifications (like rodent gnawing or digestive marks), human modifications (like cut marks or manufacturing), non-human natural modifications (like calcium carbonate buildup, or staining), length, and weight. For certain bones, I collect metrics. I fill out my Excel spreadsheet with simple alphanumeric codes that are easy to remember and understand, such as "fem" for femur, or "cal" for calcium carbonate buildup.

The only major difference between my system and Chris Szuter's is that a) I don't use numbers (like "47" instead of "fem"); and b) I use a landmark system for portions (for example, noting that I have the distal, medial condyle of the femur, rather than a more simple "distal portion").

My system results in high-quality data for each specimen, but each category of data collected adds seconds - even minutes! - to the overall time it takes to code each bone. When I work with large collections, like those at Marana Platform Mound, it's just too slow. I need to find the optimal trade-off between high-quality data collection and speed, so I can get a sufficiently large sample, but still have the data I need to answer my research questions.

My compromise has been this: I don't measure the length of each bone, nor weigh each individually (those are two tasks that add a lot of time to the process). I do weigh the bag as a whole, however. I also move the columns for rare traits to the far right of my spreadsheet, and I only tab over in that direction if the bone requires it. For example, I seldom find carnivore gnawing, so the "non-human animal modifications" column is on the far right. Similarly, 95% of the bones are weathering stage 1, so I only fill in that column if the bone is unusually weathered.

These may seem small changes, but they double my rate of data collection.

I'm really interested in other faunal analyst's systems. Please share yours! I'd be happy to post my full "coding sheet", if people are interested.

*Yeah, I know some people think they can pick up faunal analysis with a few books, a scanty comparative collection, and pure will. Trust me, they can't. Yes, we can tell the difference.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Gender Dynamics of Female Professors in.... Yes, John, you have something to add?

This article by Soraya Chemaly about women being interrupted in the workplace and the phenomenon of "mansplaining" is fun and familiar to all women. It made me think about being interrupted in the classroom. A lot of research has been done on gender dynamics in elementary and secondary classrooms. I don't know any research on college-level gender dynamics, but this isn't my field. I'm sure it's out there.

From my personal experience, I'd make three points about classroom interruptions:

1) Not all interruptions are equal. More men than women "interrupt" me in the classroom, but most of those "interruptions" are useful. They are requests for clarification, or they bring up issues that are important and relevant. I wish all of my students -- men and women -- were willing to "interrupt" in this manner, but men are over-represented in this category, probably because women are socialized to sit quietly, lest they appear rude.

The problem is with "unproductive interruptions", where the student is showing disrespect (either overtly or subtly, by failing to recognize their relative ignorance on a subject), or trying to score points by sounding smart, or just likes to hear their own voice. My favorite recent example of an "unproductive interruption": a student stopped my lecture to tell me I was wrong to say that primates show the primitive mammalian trait of five fingers, since the thumb doesn't count as a finger.

2) While a man is more likely to interrupt than a woman, unproductive interruptions aren't a masculine trait. They are an over-confident, clueless student trait. Students who make unproductive interruptions often don't understand basic concepts, but don't realize it. A number of studies have shown that men are more likely than women to be overconfident. Since men are more likely to interrupt than women (due to socialization), and clueless men are more likely to be overconfident than clueless women, most of my unproductive interruptions come from men. As Chemaly quotes Rebecca Solnit in her article, men who make unproductive interruptions are at the “intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness where some portion of that gender gets stuck.” 

3) Social dynamics between students and professors don't just reflect gender. Class, race, and physical traits are also relevant. I find that students from (as far as I can tell) lower socioeconomic classes are less likely to interrupt. Students of color are less likely to interrupt. This reflects larger power dynamics in our society. Also, the physical presence of a woman can make a big difference in how she is treated. I am very tall, large-framed, and don't project a conventional feminine facade. Comparing notes with other women, I don't have as many problems with students interrupting me in class, trying to pressure me into changing their grades, or trying to intimidate me. I once co-taught a class with a petite and more feminine colleague. Although I'm a push-over and she is not, all of the students went to her to ask for deadline extensions, re-grades, and extra credit opportunities. I have twice had students try to subtly intimidate me. In both cases they were football players, and in both cases it took me days to realize what they had been trying to do. Frankly, I'm just not that intimidated by someone who is shorter than I am.

Anyone else have stories about interruptions and "mansplaining" in the classroom?

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Things I have learned from revising Biological Anthropology

I revised my Introduction to Biological Anthropology class this year. I included more active learning, added a new textbook (The Alternative Introduction to Biological Anthropology, by Jonathan Marks), and changing the exam structure.

Here's what I've learned:

1. Active learning improved (most) student learning and provided feedback on the learning process.

In-class activities improved overall class understanding of major concepts. Partly, the improvement came from the activities themselves, but frequent feedback was also important. For example, students wrote short essays in class about race as a social construct. The feedback they received drove home -- in a way I'd never been able to drive home before -- that they didn't understand the concept as well as they thought they did. When they were asked to write a similar essay for the exam, the improvement was striking. This approach was particularly useful for deceptively simple-seeming concepts, such as race and evolution, that are hard for students to a) understand; and b) recognize their own failure to understand.

Feedback is a two-way street. I learned a lot about my students that helped me shape the class, and to intervene where necessary before the exam codified mistakes into grades. For example, I'd never known how many of my students were young-earth creationists (around 15%). Some of those students did well. Others did poorly. I've always announced at the beginning of the semester that students are free to believe whatever they wish, as long as they are familiar with the scientific evidence presented in the class, but this semester I was able to speak personally with students who had conflicts, and ease many concerns.

Much of the feedback I received was not from the activities themselves, but from the 5-min reflections that students wrote afterward. The students groaned every time I asked them to write one of these, so I stopped doing them about half-way through the semester. Next time I teach, though, I'm going to include them with every activity. Even if the students didn't like them, I found them invaluable sources of information on what students had learned, and what needed to be covered again.

2. The best students loved Marks's textbook, even if they disagreed with him. Struggling students struggled.

I gave weekly comprehension checks, which were 10-min essays designed to test understanding of basic concepts (for example, "why is race a culturally-constructed category, not a biological one".) Often, the essays were based on the readings, since I had other means to provide feedback on in-class materials. Most students did OK on essay questions from the Sylk and Boyd textbook, if they'd read the book. (There were a number of students who hadn't read the book, but that's a different problem!) When the essay was based on the Marks book, however, the results were discouraging. Most good students understood the his major points, if not all the nuances, and learned a lot. Several of them told me his was the best textbook they'd ever read. But a good 50% of students regularly failed to understand Marks's basic argument. Perhaps they were less inclined to read Marks, whose chapters are longer, prose denser, and pages less adorned with glossy photos and illustrative graphs.

3. Giving students exam questions ahead of time lowered grades (for some students). 

As I mentioned in my previous blog post on this topic, giving students the database of questions ahead of time lead to an increase in As and an increase in Fs. After the first exam, I gave my students a survey asking when they began to study for the exam, whether or not they'd worked their way through the questions, etc. Not surprisingly, most students who did well on the exam had begun studying well before the exam, and had worked their way through all the questions. The students who did poorly didn't fail because they had answered the study questions incorrectly; they hadn't done them at all. Unfortunately, the database of questions seemed to intimidate/depress students who were already unlikely to study long hours, and they skipped studying altogether, rather than substitute a more standard study approach.

4. This was not the outcome I was expecting.

When I changed the class, I was hoping to: A) improve concept comprehension for the average student; B) decrease the failure rate for the class (which is about 15%) by helping struggling students to learn; and C) focus the course on skill development and the application of concepts to daily life. At the same time, my biggest fear was that the class would be too easy for high-achieving students, that they wouldn't get enough in-depth coverage of materials, or they wouldn't be challenged.

Point C is a topic for another blog post. I believe that I succeeded with point A. Exam essay questions suggest that the average student did improve their comprehension of major class concepts. But I failed on point B. In fact, the class failure rate increased, and struggling students did more poorly this semester than in previous semesters.

In retrospect, I should have expected that outcome. Most of my students aren't struggling because they can't understand the material (although students with poor science backgrounds do face barriers). In general, students fail because they don't come to class, don't do the readings, and don't study. The new structure of the class exacerbated these problems. In-class activities were more important, so students who didn't come to class were missing more (both in materials and in graded activities). I demanded (and assessed) engagement with the readings, and held exam performance to a higher standard. Students who did not wish to read or study were left behind. I hoped the focus on active learning would engage students who were otherwise likely to skip class. That was clearly naive.

On the other hand, my fear that top students would find the class too easy was unfounded. In fact, students were more engaged and the grades for the top 25% of students went up as students produced some of the best essays I've read in the 7 years I've taught this class.

So, changes that were meant to increase learning for average and struggling students instead improved outcomes for average and high-achieving students. This wasn't the outcome I was expecting, and not necessarily the one I desired (although improving learning for any student is good). Students don't come to class/read/study because they are prioritizing non-academic activities over academics. To the extent that those activities are sports, games, organizations, partying, or loafing around, I consider that to be the student's problem. To the extent that the student is struggling because they work full time, are caring for their family, or face other structural barriers because of poverty, race, or gender, however, I want my classroom to be a place where they can succeed, without having to be twice as good or work twice as hard as other students. For those students, I consider the revision to be a qualified failure, and I need to rethink my policies to allow more flexibility for students with outside responsibilities.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Are Phone Interviews Useful?

I've been on both the "giving" and "receiving" side of phone interviews (sometimes both in the same week!). I remain unconvinced that phone interviews are useful. The skills necessary for doing well on a phone interview just don't seem to translate into the skills necessary to be an excellent professor.

Phone interviews tell you the following things:

1) can the candidate make a personal connection with someone over the phone, without visual cues, and under massive pressure where the slightest misstep could leave them living in their mother-in-law's basement next year.

2) can the candidate speak clearly and coherently under the aforementioned circumstances, with potentially severe penalties to anyone who speaks with an accent, has a speaking impediment, or just mumbles when nervous.

3) can the candidate speak off-the-cuff on complex subjects, with no warning, and just happen to hit the one piece of information you, the interviewer, were most interested in hearing. 

The phone interview process is advantageous to out-going, confident candidates with less at stake should the interview fail. Out-going and confident describes precisely zero of the graduate students I've known at the end of a grueling PhD program. Yet, many of those students are highly empathetic toward their students, committed to both research and teaching, and extremely collegial. 

More problematic, phone interviews put international candidates and candidates with disabilities at a disadvantage, even when their accent or speech impediment would have little or no effect on the classroom; for example, if it's only problematic when you can't see the person talk so you're not getting visual cues, or when normal static on the phone line makes it hard to understand them.

I am sympathetic to the idea that asking candidates to speak off-the-cuff tells you something about how well they respond to student questions. That does seem to be the only real justification for phone interviews. But most of the questions I've been asked (or have asked) during phone interviews are not good substitutes for the questions students ask during class. Student questions usually come out of the material discussed, they don't drop in out of the blue and cover any topic related to one's profession. They also come from people with whom you've had time to develop some rapport, and whose relationship to yourself is well defined and whose whims are not able to derail your future career. This has a profound effect on how comfortable candidates are in answering the questions.

Furthermore, if a student asks you a question you can't answer, it is both the ethical and educational to say "I don't know", and then look it up (preferably with the student). I still remember the student who asked me how tarsiers were able to turn their necks so far. I had no idea, but we did some looking on-line until we found drawings of their cervical vertebrae and compared those to other primates. Education happened, for both of us! In a phone interview, saying "I don't know", or "I'll have to look that up", would be a kiss of death.

Finally, in a phone interview, the content of the candidate's answers must be taken with a grain of salt. Their answers are merely what they could think to say when blindsided by a particular question and told they had some vague or unknown time limit in which to answer it. And, yet, search committees tend to treat their answers as complete. Candidates may be eliminated because they didn't mention running a fieldschool when asked what classes they would like to teach. Yet, had they been asked specifically if they were willing to run a fieldschool, they may have enthusiastically detailed their plans to do just that. 

Sometimes universities mandate phone interviews (I think ours might), and many faculty members really like them. I'll admit, they make it easy to whittle down a list of otherwise equally-well qualified candidates because the outcomes of phone interviews tend to be radically different. I'm just not sure we're whittling the candidates down on the right basis.

The best "phone interview" I ever had was an e-mail. I was given five questions and asked to write a paragraph answer for each. I didn't get a campus visit, but at least I felt my true voice had been heard. If search committees actually care about complete and comparable answers to their questions, I'd say that's the way to go. It's easier on everyone's schedule, and more honest than the phone interview.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

YA Fiction: Neil Gaiman

Another in my series of YA fiction reviews. Check out my list of warnings from the first post.

Coraline, by Neil Gaiman. Published by Harper Collins, 2002 and 2008.

How did I not know the Gaiman wrote books for children? I'm not a huge Gaiman fan. I liked American Gods, and I remember the Sandman series fondly from high school, but I've never gone out of my way to find his work, so I must have missed all of his young adult and children books.

Coraline follows the title character, a young girl, as she discovers a parallel world through the bricked-up door in her flat. There, a spider-like monster (who takes the shape of her mother, but with black buttons for eyes) has created a mirror of Coraline's life: the same house, the same kooky neighbors, but all designed as a trap for young children, as Coraline discovers when she talks to the souls of some of the children who had fallen into the web over the last 200 years. Coraline befriends a black cat that is able to move between the worlds (and can speak while in the parallel world). Ultimately, Coraline is able to free the trapped souls of the children, free her own parents who had been captured by the spider, and escape with the cat. It's a short book, incredibly creepy, and wonderfully well written. It's literary writing, but not above what a child can understand. The book reminded me a bit of China Mieville (one of my favorite authors), but much creepier.


Age-appropriate for a 7 year old?: In general, yes. If your child is easily creeped out by ghost stories, this probably isn't the best book. But if they find such stories pleasantly shivery, then they will love Coraline.

Positive gender roles?: There are very few male characters in the book (unless you count the cat). All the main drivers are female. Coraline herself is brave, resourceful, and quick-thinking. She's a well-developed character, and I particularly like the way she staged a girly-girl tea party as her final trap to defeat the spider. The best part? The author doesn't feel it necessary for Coraline to find and marry the love of her life by the age of 16, or even to have a relationship at all.

 Does the book reflect diversity in any way?: The ethnicity of the characters is never discussed, but there's no explicit engagement with diversity.

Final verdict: I plan to have my daughter read this. My only concern is that she'll find it too scary.

Note: if your child is the nervous type, but you'd like to introduce them to Neil Gaiman, I highly recommend the children's book Finally, the Milk. It's meant for a younger audience (my 4-year old sat through the whole thing in one sitting), partially illustrated, and lots of fun for the parents, too!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Our brains are always changing. Get over it!

Another week, another article about the coming downfall of Western Civilization. It's a genre that dates back to Socrates's laments about the luxury and tyranny of youth (often mis-quoted). Western Civilization hasn't fallen yet.

(OK, so it's fallen and gotten back up several times since then, but it's hard to blame the collapse of Rome or the Black Plague on children rudely crossing their legs, or talking too loudly.)

In our modern scientific era, the genre has taken on a neurological cast. The next generation's failings are damaging their brains, crippling our nation's ability to think, to innovate, to lead, oh, and GET OFF MY LAWN!

This week's contribution to the field is a Washington Post article: "Serious Reading Takes a Hit from Online Scanning and Skimming, Researchers Say." According to cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, web-surfing, e-mail, and other short-term reading commitments are re-wiring our brains, so we're no longer as good at deep reading long works. We've replaced linear reading skills with non-linear reading skills. As the article says, "scanning, searching for key words, scrolling up and down quickly" have replaced the ability to "remember where key information was in a book simply by the layout...[such as] a protagonist died on the page with the two long paragraphs after the page with all that dialogue." 

(You can see how that would be a problem. The ability to quickly find the protagonist's death scene based on the text layout of the page is far more critical than the ability to scan for key words, now isn't it?)

Yes, sure, our brains are being re-wired. Our brains are always being re-wired. That's how we process information. That's how we learn. Our brain is an amazing adaptation: it's an adaptation to allow adaptation. As humans, our fundamental trait is flexibility. We are able to manipulate our environment, but also to modify our behavior to fit our ever-changing niche. That's what the brain does.

So if the brain is being re-wired, it's because it's trying to better fit our current needs. And does anybody seriously believe that our future is going to involve more in-depth exposition on James Joyce and fewer hours spent on Wikipedia? That reading one text without intermission is going to replace near-miraculous modern technology that allows us to look up all connecting information as we read?

I can only imagine the article that must have run in Ye Olde Washingtone Poste after Gutenberg revolutionized printing: "Prior to the so-called innovation of the printing press, we developed an ability to scan our environment, search for key information, and quickly make connections between disparate pieces of information. But now, weighed down by the cognitive changes forced on young minds by the structures of printed tomes, our children are losing this ability, replacing it with a simplistic, linear understanding of the world, learning more about the shape of paragraphs than the shape of the world around them. Oh, and GET OFF YE OLDE LAWN!"

Don't get me wrong, there can be serious consequences to technology shifts, and modern reading/writing habits aren't all good. This study showed, for example, that hand-writing class notes, rather than typing, leads to better learning outcomes. But could we stop it with the hand wringing over the fall of Western Civilization? That got old with Plato.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The world needs classroom discussion rules

I don't own a TV, so I missed the controversial Colbert joke, Suey Park's response, and Josh Zepps's "interview". I had just sat down to write about it, when this Andrew Sullivan "response" to this (as usual) brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates article came across my desk. (Make sure you follow the links in Coates's post to get the full scope of the argument.)

I'm going to talk about the issues raised later. But first a rant: seriously, the world needs classroom discussion rules.

I teach about race, gender, and class, so it's important that my classroom is a safe space for discussion. My students create their own rules for classroom interactions, but one rule is absolute: you don't decide what someone else feels or experiences. If Park says she was offended by Colbert, then she was offended. Period. You can ask her to explain why she feels that way (as long as you're actually listening). You can challenge the usefulness of her response. But you cannot tell her that her feelings are wrong. And it is absolutely inexcusable to use a position of privilege as an older, white, male broadcast journalist, for example, (or as a professor), to speak over and belittle the experience of someone far more vulnerable than you, a younger, female person of color, (or a student). While we study systems of inequality, we must be aware of them in our own classrooms and our own conversations.

Every year, my students choose some version of "show respect" as their top rule for classroom discussion. The essence of respect is not assuming that you're smarter or better informed than anyone else in the room, especially when the topic is anther person's lived experience. Note that this rule applies equally to a woman of color who feels a classroom statement was racist, and to a white man who is offended by allegations of racism. Both are entitled to their unique reaction to their own experiences.

But that doesn't mean that everyone's opinions are equally valid on all topics. If a fellow student/human being has had experiences that you don't share, then you'd better listen to their opinion on those experiences. You don't have to agree, but you have to listen and not assume they're too stupid to understand their own mind.

People who have thought long and deeply about complex subjects, who have done the hard mental work of grappling with those subjects, cannot be dismissed as "overreacting" or "fatalistic". If Coates believes racism is an inherent part of the American experience, then that belief - based on a lifetime of experience, and a depth of historical scholarship - cannot be belittled or stigmatized by labeling it "depression." Respect demands that critics engage his argument through facts and figures, through logic or history. Disrespect is shutting down his voice because he's not saying what you want to hear.

I tell my students that they will feel uncomfortable in my classroom. Learning is a painful process. Like muscle growth, it requires tearing down existing structures and replacing them with something stronger. The pain gets better, but only if you allow yourself to be torn apart first.

Maybe you don't agree with Suey Park. Maybe you don't agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates. But it is possible to disagree by engaging the issues, not by minimizing a person's experience, or shooting down their fundamental right to articulate that experience in their own way.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

YA Fiction: Howl's Moving Castle

Another in my series of YA fiction reviews. Check out my list of warnings from the first post.

Howl's Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones. Published by Greenwillow, 1986.

I want to like Diana Wynne Jones. Her work has been recommended to me by a number of people whose opinions I trust. She's an engaging, witty writer, and she creates wonderful characters, but she seems to have a weakness in plot development. I enjoy the first 3/4 of any book, but she wraps all of the unique, quirky charm of her stories into oddly conventional endings that clash awkwardly with the whole. Howl's Moving Castle was a particularly egregious example of that problem. The ending felt like a traditional wedding topper placed on a naked-mohawk-baby-carrot-jockey cake.

The main character, Sophie, is one of my favorite heroines in YA fiction. While working at her hat shop, she is turned into an old woman by an evil witch's curse. Freed from the social constraints placed on pretty young girls, she becomes independent, cranky, strong-willed, free-spoken, and thoroughly delightful. She teams up with a wizard named Howl, who is another example of Jones's genius for character development. Howl is so vain that he spends hours in the bathroom with magic beauty potions, and so egotistical that he'll mope for days if he's slighted. A number of minor characters add to the charm, including an animated scarecrow, and a dog that keeps changing breeds.

Ultimately, Sophie and Howl defeat the witch, and Sophie is returned to her normal state. In fact, it turns out that Sophie had been subconsciously maintaining the spell herself, because old women have more interesting lives than conventional girls. But the message that youth and beauty are less interesting than independence was rather undermined by the book's ending. Howl, the self-centered diva, assumes Sophie will marry him, and she agrees. After I read the last chapter to my daughter, she stared at me for several moments before saying, "Wait, why does she want to marry him?" Good question.


Age-appropriate for a 7 year old?: Yes. Like 90% of all YA fiction, the main character forms a significant relationship (in this case, actually gets married) at a far younger age than I'd like my daughter to think is normal. But, if I reject any book in which the main character finds her soul mate before the age of 20, then my daughter would have nothing to read.

Positive gender roles?: Yes. I love Sophie, and the secondary female characters are well developed. The male characters are also complex and not limited to stereotypical masculine traits and roles.

 Does the book reflect diversity in any way?: Not really, unless you count the Welsh.

Final verdict: I read this to my daughter, and we both enjoyed it (until the ending). Even the ending was good, in that it generated conversation. My daughter decided not to marry a self-absorbed, messy, moody, hysteric who expects his wife to hold his life together while he runs around being brilliant and adored. Good plan.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I am angry

I read this post about the death of Loretta Saunders long ago, but it has stuck with me.  The blogger's main question is "Why aren't you angry?" about Loretta Saudners's death, and the death of so many Indigenous women. I can't stop thinking about it because I don't like my answer.

I am angry.

I'm angry about Loretta Saunders, and the thousands of Indigenous women who are missing or dead, and the fact that nobody seems to care.

I'm angry about Jordan Davis, and Trayvon Martin, and Jonathan Ferrell, and Renisha McBride, and the lack of justice in our justice system.

I'm angry about Syria, and Palestine. I'm angry about the Central African Republic and Nigeria. I'm angry about the Ukraine and southern Europe. I'm angry about Venezuela and Mexico.

I'm angry about poverty, racism, and sexism. I'm angry about little girls who are shot because they want to go to school, and little boys who are conscripted into armies, and children who go to sleep hungry in the world's richest nation.

I'm angry about history denied, and history reclaimed. I'm angry about school systems that funnel children into prisons instead of colleges, about police who prey instead of protect, about laws that protect the strong at the expense of the weak.

I'm angry because the world is full of pain I can't cure and sorrows I can't comfort. I'm angry because my anger does no good, fills no earthly purpose, serves only as a reminder that we have not yet reached God's kingdom.

I can offer only awareness, no action. Because my anger is stretched too thin. Because I have chosen to triage tragedy, to feel less about one and more about another. To focus my efforts, to admit - and here's the part I really don't like - that while I'm angry, I'm just not angry enough. Not enough to act.

My anger doesn't matter. It's a pale reflection of the anger that must be felt by those whose mothers, daughters, and sisters are murdered with impunity. And anger, like talk, is cheap. The real question isn't "Why aren't you angry?" but "Why haven't you chosen to act?"

We each choose our battles. As a middle-class, abled, White woman, I have the Privilege of choosing my causes without having a persona stake in the question. I can walk away from violence against Indigenous women, when so many of the young women I teach - beautiful, inspiring young women - cannot walk away from their own vulnerability. But none of us can act on all fronts at all time.

That makes me angry, too.

And I have no answers. I'm only too aware that bundling all social justice issues under one overarching umbrella only leaves some causes behind as less discussed, less visible.

But I've been thinking a lot about the limits of anger.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

YA Fiction Review: Seraphina

Another in my series of YA fiction reviews. Check out my list of warnings from the first post.

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman. Published by Random House, 2012.

Seraphina is set in a medieval-like fantasy world, where humans and dragons are recovering from a history of warfare and violence. Despite a 40-year peace treaty, there remains a good deal of distrust and fear between the two peoples. Dragons, who can fold themselves into human shapes, are Klingon-Vulcan-like* in character; they distrust and repress all emotion, and have far superior technology than the humans. Oddly, though, while their technology allows them to create long-distance, wireless communication devices and brain surgery, it doesn't include the ability to lob a nuclear bomb at their pre-industrial human neighbors.

The title character is one of a small number of dragon-human hybrids whose very existence is a shameful secret. As a musician in the royal palace, Seraphina joins forces with her dragon uncle and a human prince and princess to thwart the plans of her dragon grandfather to undermine the peace treaty. Much of the novel focuses on her personal journey in accepting and sharing her own identity.

I really enjoyed this book. It's nicely written, fast-paced, and unique.


Age-appropriate for a 7 year old?: Probably a better fit for a middle-school or older child. The themes of intolerance and shady political alliances are dark and complex for a 7 year old. Also, the focus on finding one's personal identity may be more meaningful for an adolescent than a child. Finally, like most YA novels, there's a love story that is inappropriately serious for a protagonist who's 16 years old, particularly since she falls in love with an engaged man. (Note, by "serious" I mean that he's portrayed as "the one and only love of her life", not that the relationship is inappropriately sexual.)

Positive gender roles?: Yes! Not only is Seraphina herself a strong, brave, complex, determined, and well-developed main character who also is female, but several other important characters are strong women. The nation of Goredd, where the action takes place, is ruled by a revered queen, and her two heirs are both women.

 Does the book reflect diversity in any way?: Yes! There are characters of various ethnicities and colors described in the book. Most importantly, though, the treatment of dragons and dragon-hybrids is clearly meant to mirror the treatment of minorities in the U.S. and Europe. Dragons in human form are required to wear bells, not stars, to show their status, but the description of mob violence and religious fanaticism aimed against them has clear roots in the European pogroms. Near the end of the book, Seraphina and her human father describe living their lives as lies, hiding who they really are and who they really love, in language that reflects some contemporary attitudes toward homosexuality. There is a strong overall message about tolerance, acceptance, and multiculturalism.

Final verdict: I really liked this book, on many levels. I may give it to my daughter to read when she's older (middle to high school aged), or use it as bedtime reading when she's 10 or 11, so we can discuss what is happening and the historical roots of the story.
*Alright, so I failed Sci-Fi Geekery 101. May the Force Be with You.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Calling out pseudo-science in the Star Tribune

Yesterday, our regional paper, the Star Tribune, published a profile of local celebrity Scott Wolter, under the unfortunate title, "A Real-Life Da Vinci Code". Wolter is best known in archaeological circles for his work on the Kensington Runestone, a supposed Viking artifact that was found within an hour's drive of my office. Like most archaeologists, I assume the Kensington Runestone is a fake, but there is enough debate among credible researchers that I'm willing to keep an open mind, and I'd be happy to look at any real data that shows the stone to be genuine.

Wolter's other work is less benign. He's the host of America Unearthed, a television show about our nation's past that the article describes as "eclectic". Most professional archaeologists would use a less polite term. America Unearthed is the recent spawn of a century-old lineage, bred from the racist, nationalist, and money-/fame-seeking fantasies of misguided pseudo-scientists and professional charlatans. To run a profile of his work in a newspaper - even if it's just in the human interest section - is a serious blow to those of us who care about real history.

I wrote a letter to the editor expressing my dismay. I don't know if they will publish it. It could only be 200 words long, so it doesn't include much nuance, but here it is:
I was disappointed by the profile of Scott Wolter, “A Real-Life Da Vinci Code”. Real archaeology is far more interesting than the fantasies Wolter spins. Our ancestors – Native, European, African, or Asian – lived and died here, they loved and warred, built and destroyed, celebrated and mourned. Their story is excavated by archaeologists, handed down in oral traditions, and written in family Bibles. This past shapes who we are today, as individuals and as a society. This past is important. It is a part of us.

We disrespect our ancestors and ourselves when we replace our real past with conspiracy theories and fakes. We don’t need to pretend that the Aztecs built pyramids under our lakes. The real Indigenous peoples of this nation built giant earthen mounds from Minnesota to Louisiana. You can visit some at the Indian Mounds Regional Park in St. Paul.

We don’t need to pretend that the Knights Templar claimed North America prior to Columbus. There are many stories of adventure, determination, and profound faith among the real European pioneers. It lessens their sacrifices to replace their history with fantasy.

The real past is fascinating. Don’t demean it by pretending that fantastic pseudo-science is equal to archaeology.

UPDATE March 24, 2014: Hey, they printed my letter!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"Hostility" and the Causes of Gender Under-representation in Higher Education

I haven't written about the widely-cited Site Visit Report criticizing the University of Colorado's Philosophy department, alleging a culture of sexual harassment and hostility to women (see Rebecca Schuman's coverage here). The story includes themes that are of interest to me, (gender inequality and the role women in academia), but I have no inside information on the department, and I certainly can't speak to anybody's guilt or innocence. I know two graduates of the program, and I have great respect for their professionalism and ethics.

Still, I've been following the story, and I was interested to see this webpage, put up by a senior member of the Philosophy faculty, Dr. Michael Tooley. Dr. Tooley posts detailed critiques of the report, despite the CU administration's request that faculty not publicly (as they put it) "quibble" with the report. 

In my opinion, he is right to believe that silence will be taken as assent to the criticism. Nonetheless, the administration's concerns about "quibbling" with the report are reasonable. Anyone who has an interest in issues of bias (racism, sexism, ableism, etc.) knows that some people react to the questioning of their privilege in ways that show they are not aware of systemic power differences, or their own relatively protected position in society. Since lack of awareness is one way that sexism, racism, etc., are perpetuated in our society, any "quibble" with the report that shows a lack of awareness, or that disparages women, is going to confirm, rather than deny, the accusations made in the report.

I wasn't going to comment on Dr. Tooley's post, but then I saw that he'd used anthropology as one of his comparison fields, so I was intrigued, and a little concerned.

Here's the critical segment:

     ...Why are women underrepresented in the profession [of philosophy]? [theory] is that at least one very important cause of the underrepresentation of women in the profession involves the university environment, with women being treated differently in classrooms than men, or with many male philosophers being hostile to female philosophers, or both....     But I am not convinced that this first explanation of the underrepresentation of women in our discipline is right. First of all, philosophy is not alone with regard to the underrepresentation of women.  Consider the following figures from a National Science Foundation “Survey of Earned Doctorates”  for the year 2012: 
Subject        Percentage of Doctorates Earned by Women
Mathematics:                28.3
Philosophy:                  26.8        
Physics:                       19.4
    The question to which these figures give rise is whether the underrepresentation of women in mathematics and physics is to be explained in the same way as in the case of philosophy, or in a different way.  The idea that different explanations are to be given strikes me as quite implausible.  But if one offers the same explanation, and if it is the explanation just mentioned, then one is thereby committed to the view that one very important cause of the underrepresentation of women in mathematics involves the university environment, with women being treated differently in mathematics classrooms than men are treated, or with many male mathematicians being hostile to female mathematicians, or both, and similarly in the case of physics.  Is this at all plausible?
     If one does think that this is plausible, consider the following figures from the same document:
Subject        Percentage of Doctorates Earned by Women
Psychology:                71.0
Anthropology:             65.9
    If hostile attitudes and harassing behavior on the part of men explain the low percentage of doctorates earned by women in mathematics, philosophy, and physics, why don't the same hostile attitudes and harassing behavior on the part of men also generate a low percentage of doctorates earned by women in psychology and anthropology, just as they supposedly do in the case of philosophy? 
First of all, I don't see why there couldn't be different explanations for the underrepresentation of women in mathematics and in philosophy. But if we grant that the explanation for one is the explanation for all, it is still entirely plausible that academic departments in mathematics, physics, and philosophy are far more hostile to women than academic departments in anthropology and psychology, even in the same university. 

Quick exercise: name a famous anthropologists. 

OK, was that anthropologist female? Did you name Margaret Mead? Jane Goodall? Dian Fossey? Mary Leakey? How about Ruth Benedict or Zora Neale Hurston? Maybe that woman on whom they based the TV show Bones, even if you can't remember her name? Chances are, if you can name any famous anthropologist, she was a women.

Now repeat the exercise with philosophy, mathematics, or physics. 

Perhaps you see the problem.

Anthropology as a modern American discipline was founded by Franz Boas, who recruited and guided a number of female students into prominence back in the first half of the 20th century (including Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Zora Neale Hurston). Ours is a discipline based on the ideal of equality. As Benedict wrote "The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human difference." By virtue of our training as anthropologists, we have an awareness of gender inequality and systemic power differences in society. Anthropology developed in the context of colonialism - a legacy still hanging on our shoulders - but for a century this has been a discipline where women had opportunities that were denied to them in many other fields. And as more women entered the field, they encouraged even more women to find a home here. Female anthropologists expect to find mentors, acceptance, and respect within the field. No, that's not universal, but it's the expectation, not the exception.

In contrast, a friend of mine who is a professor of physics was recently assumed to be a hotel manager. Why else would a well-dressed, professional woman be in the hotel during a national physics convention, after all?

So, yes, it is entirely plausible that philosophy programs could create a hostile environment for women in a way that anthropology programs do not, despite the fact that they are both in the same university.

But it doesn't follow that the hostile environment proceeds from rampant sexual harassment. There are many ways programs can signal that women are not welcome. For example, if a senior member of the faculty were to write something like this:
...I think that it is also the case that certain traits of character are crucial to success in the most challenging intellectual disciplines, and that the different ways in which boys and girls are socialized, and perhaps also the different ways in which they may be treated in elementary and secondary schools, makes it unfortunately less likely that women will come to possess those traits of character that make for success in the more difficult, and more abstract, disciplines.
That's a direct quote from Dr. Tooley's rebuttal to the Site Visit Report. In his view, it's not sexual harassment that explains the underrepresentation of women in philosophy, it's that women lack intellectual character traits that allow them to compete with men. He acknowledges this is the result of socialization, not an inherent aspect of having two X chromosomes, but nonetheless women aren't up to the challenge of philosophy. The socialization that is to blame, he posits, occurs during the elementary and secondary years. So the underrepresentation of women in philosophy is not, in this view, the result of young women being dismissed by their university professors as unlikely to have the correct character traits for the field.

This brings up a fundamental difference between anthropology and philosophy. I've heard of sexual harassment cases in anthropology. I've heard of anthropology programs where inappropriate sexual relationships with students were rampant. Archaeology, in particular, is known for sexualized field environments. I wouldn't be surprised to hear about new cases sexual harassment in the future. But I would be absolutely stunned to find a senior anthropologist stating - in 2014! - that women don't have the same intellectual character traits as men*.

I don't know how Dr. Tooley's defense of his program will be received by other philosophers. The Site Visit Report may be fundamentally flawed, as he states. We don't have enough data to evaluate anyone's claims. But his response shows the lack of awareness that the administration was no doubt concerned about when they asked faculty not to "quibble" with the report. I can understand his anger over the publicity the Site Visit Report spawned, and his wish to speak out. In the court of public opinion, however, I don't think he's doing the program any favors.
*OK, I'm sure somebody will be able to come up with an example, but such a quote would definitely be an anomaly. Dr. Tooley's views may also be an anomaly within philosophy, I'm not familiar enough with the field to know. But a program that's being dragged through the mud for allegedly creating a hostile environment for women, should, perhaps, be particularly careful about such statements.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

And now for something completely different: Reviews of YA fiction

My daughter is seven. She's a voracious reader, plus I read a book chapter to her every night before bed. She's reading at a 5th grade level, so she's able to read books that she's too young to understand. For the last couple of years, I've been reading a lot of YA fiction to find books she will enjoy that are age appropriate and that provide her with positive messages about gender and diversity. Although it's a bit off-topic for this blog, I've decided to share my reviews with other parents.

Warning #1: these reviews are totally idiosyncratic. They're all about whether my daughter would like the book, so YMMV.

Warning #2: I include spoilers galore. I'm assuming that you don't want to read these books yourself, you're just looking for books your kids will like.

Warning #3: My daughter loves Harry Potter, so my reading tended toward fantasy novels. I won't be reviewing any Babysitter Club books here. (Wait, is the Babysitter Club still a thing?)

Warning #4: I'm a nasty, snarky reviewer. My nasty, snarky comments about the books I'm reading drive my husband nuts. You've been warned.

Alright, first review:
The Inheritance Cycle, by Christopher Paolini (includes four books: Eragon, Eldest, Brisingr, and Inheritance)

Stop me if this sounds familiar: A beautiful princess (Arya), on a dangerous mission, is waylaid by the dark minion of the evil Emperor. In her desperation, she sends the precious treasure she is guarding to the only person she thinks can help, a once-powerful warrior – one of the last survivors of a noble order of magical soldiers – who is now living peacefully in the back of beyond under an assumed name. Instead of going straight to the old man, the, dragon, is picked up by our hero (Eragon), a young man of uncertain parentage, living with his uncle on a remote farm. Because of the dragon, the boy is not at home when the minions of the evil Empire track the lost treasure as far as the farm, and our hero returns to find his home destroyed and his uncle dead. He sets out to get revenge, meeting a long-lost sibling (whom he hadn't known he had lost), while being tantalized by visions of the beautiful princess, who has been imprisoned and needs his help to escape. He succeeds, but only after his mentor dies to protect him while battling the minions of the evil Empire. Our hero then travels to a dense, green forest where he meets a pointy-eared ancient warrior of the old order, the one-time teacher of the mentor-figure, who teaches him the way of the, magic. But, he hears his friends are in trouble, so he leaves his training, despite the teacher's warnings that he's not ready. Unprepared, he is confronted with dark secrets about his parentage, and....

OK, you get the idea. I found the highly derivative plot quite distracting. There was literally a scene where I expected the mentor-character to say “These are not the droids you're looking for.” We are saved from the “Luke, I am your father” scene only by luck. Other derivative features include Edding's silvery hand marking and McCaffrey's sentient, telepathic dragons. Give the author credit, though, for improving dramatically upon the Tokenien orcs.

The writing is also awkward, although it improves over the course of the series. In the first book, some of the descriptions literally made me wince, like this one from page 15: “A bit past noon he heard the Igualda Falls blanketing everything with the dull sound of a thousand splashes.”

On the other hand, the books were written by a sixteen-year old, and they represent a significant achievement for a teenage author. Most sixteen-year old's wouldn't have the discipline to write a full book, much less four books of this excruciating length. So, good on him. The characters are interesting. He does a good job of world-building. I can see why young adults/children, in particular, would be pulled into these books. 


Age-appropriate for a 7 year old?: Yes, except for the length. Each book goes three hundred pages past boring, but there's no inappropriate language, graphic violence or sexual content.

Positive gender roles?: There's only one major female character, Arya (the princess). She's a standard powerful-bad-guy-killing-but-still-pretty-and-primarily-a-love-interest kind of character. On the other hand, Arya and Eragon (the main character) don't actually end up together (although it's implied they will eventually). The portrayal of masculinity is pretty standard as well (focus on being a warrior, leadership, honor). For gender roles, I'd give this series a "meh", maybe a "meh plus", just because the love story doesn't have a standard ending.

 Does the book reflect diversity in any way?: Not so much.

Final verdict: I won't read this as a bedtime story. If my daughter gets desperate for epic fantasy, I'll let her try this and see if she gets bored. There's no harm in the story, but it's too long for elementary school children, and there's nothing particularly good about it, either.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Cosmos: great, except where it's wrong

I loved Neil deGrasse Tyson's renewal of the great Carl Sagan's Cosmos series. Oh, the gorgeous science!

But one segment fell afoul of two of my pet peeves: 1) it perpetrated the myth that science and religion are enemies, and 2) it did so by seriously misrepresenting history.

Cosmos's producers chose Giordano Bruno, a 16th century monk who was burned at the stake for heresy, to represent the history of science. In their framing of his life, Bruno argued for an infinite universe, in which the earth revolved around the sun, and where the stars were themselves suns, all with their own circling worlds. The Church, frightened defenders of faith in the face of science, executed him, making him a martyr for science.

If your agenda is to prove that faith is diametrically opposed to science, then it's a good story. Too bad it's not true.

Giordano Bruno was a troubled man. He gained and lost important patrons throughout his life, as a result of his mercurial and abrasive personality. His vision of an infinite universe was exactly that: a vision. He was not a scientist, and while he was inspired by Copernicus, he was not an astronomer himself. His ideas about the world were not based on empirical evidence, they were based on a mix of visions and ancient philosophy that were no more scientific than a belief in bodily humors. He's an odd choice as a poster boy for science.

Furthermore, Giordano Bruno was not executed for his non-standard beliefs about the universe (either the ones that have subsequently turned out to be correct, or the ones that were just as wrong as his contemporaries' ideas). Bruno's "scientific" beliefs were a small part of his trial. He was executed for heresy: for denying the divinity of Christ, the virginity of Mary, and for his pantheism. The Church wasn't trying to shut him up because they were afraid of a heliocentric, infinite universe. They wanted an ordained priest to stop calling Christ a magician!

No matter what Bruno believed, he shouldn't have been executed. Today we'd consider it horrific to kill a man for his beliefs. That's why the Church doesn't execute people for heresy any more, just as the government of Great Britain no longer hangs children for picking pockets. But it is profoundly misleading to make Bruno's tragic story into a morality play about the role of religion in silencing science. The myth of Bruno-as-martyr-for-science developed in the late 1800's, when British naturalists tried to convince their skeptical countrymen that opposing the theory of evolution, (and other aspects of scientific thought), on a religious basis would make them like the much-reviled and maligned Catholic Church, the great bogey-man of British history.

Galileo, a true scientist whose empirically-based work was seen as a challenge to Aristotle, would have made a better choice. The complicated and politically-charged relationship between Galileo and the Church would have served as a much more accurate and illuminating story about science, religion, and politics.

Science and religion are not in opposition. To portray them that way is a disservice to both. This constant message is why students come to my classes convinced that they aren't allowed to believe in evolution, even if they are members of the Church that produced great evolutionary scientists like Brother Gregor Mendel (father of modern genetics), Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (who was educated by the Jesuits), and Blessed Nicolas Steno (a founder of modern geology).

Cosmos is wonderful scientific outreach, but by unnecessarily portraying religion as fundamentally opposed to science, it creates an image of scientists who are hostile to people of faith. If Cosmos continues with this theme, it will limit its own audience, and undermine its message that science is open to all.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

I gave my students the exam questions ahead of time, and their grades dropped (kind of)

One of my professors in grad school used to say that he could put a photocopy of the exam outside his door a week before it was given, and he would still get a normal distribution of grades. But I have fond memories of an undergraduate psychology class where the professor gave us a bank of questions (without answers) as our "study guide", and then chose a number of them to be our exam. I never got below a 99% on any exam in that class.

This semester I experimented with my Introduction to Biological Anthropology class. Rather than giving the students a traditional study guide, as I have for the last six years, I gave them my question database, the database from which I had chosen questions for exams in previous years. They were given around 100 questions and told them that I would randomly pick 20 to be their exam. Questions included multiple choice, "activity" questions (for example, given a scenario, how would you use Hardy-Weinberg to predict the frequencies of genotypes in the next generation, if no evolution occurs), fill-in-the-blank, and essay questions. 

I chose a mixture of questions for the exam, including one essay. Compared to previous years, I noted three major changes in grade distributions, some of which I would have predicted, but others are...odd.

  1. More students got A's, and particularly high A's. Students very rarely got above 95% in previous years, but this year 2 students got 100%. The percentage of students who earned an A doubled, from around 10% in previous years to over 20%. This makes sense to me.
  2. But...far more students failed the exam. I usually have around 10% of the class fail, this year it was nearly 20%! I usually have a bimodal distribution of grades, but this year the bimodality was greatly exaggerated. Few students earned C's. They either did very well (over half the class got an A or B), or they did very poorly (38% of students earned below a 70%, with the majority of them failing). I find this baffling. My TA suggested that some students decided their time would be better spent reading over their notes and "winging it" on the test than actually going through all 100 questions. In other words, for students who didn't want to put much time into studying (for whatever reason, legit or not), the questions were a turn-off and they studied less.
  3. But...based on their essay answers, the students actually understood some core concepts better than in previous years. I don't know that this reflects the test format as much as the active learning activities and opportunities for feedback that I added to the course this year. Regardless, the essay answers showed that almost all students had mastered the basics, and more students had a deep understanding of evolution and race than in previous years. (The students were given essays on those two topics and asked to pick one). If the essay grades hadn't been so high, the bimodal distribution would have been even more exaggerated. On the basis of non-essay questions alone, around half the class received an A or B, but there would have been no C grades at all, and a full third of the class would have failed the exam.
I decided not to curve the exam. How do you curve an exam when the number of A's doubled? I'm hoping students will step up their studying for the next exam, but if I have the same distribution, I may go back to a standard study guide.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Intro Biological Anthropology Classes Should Talk About Racism

I've taught an Introduction to Biological Anthropology class for six years now, using three different textbooks. While all of them talk about human diversity, none of them discuss racism in the modern U.S. I think that should change. And if it doesn't, then more professors need to add their own section on racism, bias, and structural inequality to their classroom.

Many professors feel that the discussion of racism properly belongs in a Cultural Anthropology class, but Biological Anthropology is a popular science gen ed at many universities; this class may be the only shot we get to reach a large segment of our student body.

Human biodiversity is a core focus of Biological Anthropology, and some professors feel that racism and modern race relations are topics that stray too far from the biology. But our students experience human biodiversity through the lens of race. Their entire perception of biodiversity is seated within their cultural understanding of race, and while we try to teach them why the culturally-constructed category of race is not synonymous with discrete categories of variation, we should also teach them why the hell we care.

Universities can be radically different in their demographics, but college students by and large are more likely to be white and middle or upper class. Many of my Euro-American students tell me that they've never thought seriously about race, a sure sign that they've had limited exposure to the experiences of people of color in this country. Intro to Biological Anthropology is a chance to change that. I can't let the opportunity slip away.

Some professors shy away from these difficult conversations, concerned about student complaints, helicopter parents, accusations of indoctrinating students, or just the general fear that accompanies most conversations about race in this country. If you're wondering where to start, some teaching techniques that have worked well for me include:

  1. I begin the unit on race by showing this video of Jay Smooth on how to talk about (and listen to others talking about) race without freaking out.
  2. I use examples of how racial systems are created and perpetrated in order to uphold social and power structures at the same time as I'm explaining the difference between human biodiversity and race. Race isn't just a cultural construct, it's a power construct, and underlining that fact helps students understand the difference between the concepts of biodiversity and race, while at the same time teaching the importance of structural inequality and bias.
  3. I include at least one lecture on the history of the study of human biodiversity, showing students how racist cultural contexts shaped the science of human nature, and tying racist historical arguments into modern scientific racism. For example, I spend one lecture talking about the history of IQ tests. I demonstrate why the concept and implementation are flawed, and then show how interpretations of IQ were used by the political and social elites to create immigration policy, eugenics laws, and justify the poor treatment of people of color, women, the mentally ill, and individuals with lower socioeconomic status. After introducing students to the arguments of people like Henry Goddard and Francis Galton, I then introduce students to modern arguments along the same lines (like this, for example, or this, or even this), and ask them to apply class concepts to critique these arguments. This maintains a focus on important evolutionary and biological concepts such as the complexity of human diversity, heredity, and the role of the environment in gene expression, while equipping students with the weapons to combat misinformation in their daily lives.
  4. This year, I finished the segment on race with an in-class discussion on segregated housing, its historical roots, why it continues, and what long-term consequences result. I had students listen to House Rules, an NPR segment that discusses housing discrimination. This segment highlights both historical and contemporary racism, and since one focus of the story is on the heroic efforts of Republican politician George Romney (father of Mitt) to end racial segregation, the piece has the advantage of a certain political neutrality. (OK, nothing is politically neutral when it comes to race, but at least it's harder to argue that the story is a piece of leftist propaganda.) In class, the students discussed the story and reflected on what they had learned. This lesson strays farther from basic class concepts than the lesson on IQ, but you know what? In a country where black children can be shot with impunity because their skin color makes them "threatening", I'm not going to apologize for teaching about racism every chance I get.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

My Religion, My Science: Thoughts on the Nye-Ham Debate

Full disclosure: I am a woman of faith. I am a devout and practicing Catholic. I believe that God can be seen in all of creation, and that Truth can be found in his Word. I also teach human evolution.

Fuller disclosure: I didn't watch the Nye-Ham debate.

I didn't watch it because I doubt Bill Nye presented any new information about evolution (I teach this stuff, it's not like I'm uninformed), and I'm not a member of Ken Ham's church, so he's not the person I would turn to on matters of theology or Christian practice.

I didn't watch it because there's hardly ever a point to this kind of "conversation". Most people watching have chosen their "side" already, and nothing presented in a debate between creationists and scientists is going to change their mind.

But most importantly, I didn't watch because the "science vs. religion" trope gives the impression to religious people that we cannot believe science, even if our religion has no problem with evolution. Many people have no better religious education than they have science education. They hear the media message that "religious" people can't believe in evolution, so they think it's true for their religion as well, even if it's not. I've had a number of students tell me that they can't believe in evolution because they are devout Catholics. But there is no conflict between Catholicism and evolution. Blessed Pope John Paul II even said so! Catholic schools have been teaching evolution for generations. Yet, since students don't have religious education on this topic, they assume that the media message of "science vs. religion" must be true for their religion, just as it is for, say, a church that believes in young earth creationism.

I didn't watch the debate because it demeans both science and religion. Not everyone likes Stephen Jay Gould's argument that science and religion are nonoverlapping magesteria, but I think it fits well in this case. Events like the Nye-Ham debate put the evolutionary theory of human evolution on the same level as the Biblical explanation of human origins, but the truth is, they aren't even playing the same game.  Science is the study of what is knowable, physical provable or disprovable. Religion concerns itself with a higher Truth that is, ultimately, based on faith and not physically provable (or ever fully knowable). If Ken Ham wants to believe in the literal truth of Genesis, as an act of faith that is unrelated to any physical evidence, then he is absolutely within his right to do so. But there can be no debate between faith and evidence. That's the point of faith, it needs no evidence.

But when creationist arguments descend from the realm of faith and enter the realm of the physical, the measurable, the quantifiable, the empirical, then they've entered the domain of science, and they're going to lose the case on the merits of the evidence every time.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Don't Teach Phylogeny This Way (Anatomy of a Failure)

I've posted previously on class activities that work. Here's a post on a class activity that failed. Failed spectacularly. Crashed and burned and took out half the class . It was bad.

Never, never, never teach phylogeny this way.

First, a (mercifully short) description of the bad, bad, so very bad class activity, and then some thoughts for improvement.

Bad Activity:
To teach about phylogenic trees and how they are made, I had students divide into groups of 6-8 and imagine they were each representatives of a separate living species. Using only physical traits that were within their control (that is, the clothes they are wearing, length of hair, glasses, makeup, tattoos, etc.), I asked them to create a tree that grouped subsets of "species" based on shared, derived traits. Using one group's tree as an example, we went through as a group and talked about how to read a phylogeny.

What Went Wrong:
The activity wouldn't have been so bad as a brief introduction, except my class schedule was thrown off this semester for various reasons, so I wasn't able to spend as much time on the concepts of cladistics and systematics and I usually do. So, although the students were exposed to different types of phylogenies in their book, briefly in lectures, etc., the class activity, during which they arbitrarily chose random traits to create subgroupings of "species", became their main exposure to the whole concept of phylogenic trees. On the exam, they were given some fake animals (star and pentagon shapes, with weird squiggles representing traits), and asked to create the most parsimonious tree showing the relationships between the animal species. The vast majority of students did exactly what they'd done in class: picked a random trait and used it to divide the animals, and then kept dividing until they'd created a nice-looking tree. But, in doing so, they created trees where some traits had to evolve independently five different times, or more. The trees looked nice, but said absolutely nothing about the evolutionary relationship between the species. 

What Went Right:
Well, they learned how to draw trees. They just didn't learn much about why one would draw them in the first place, or the purpose of the whole exercise. Ugh.

Ideas for Improvement:
I don't think this is a fatally flawed exercise, it just needs to be done differently. 

1. Explain about parsimony at the beginning of the exercise

2. When students get into their groups, have them write down all of the visible traits present in their group. For example, it may be easiest to have students make trees based on clothing alone, so one set of possible traits could include jeans, chinos and leggings. Another set of traits could be fuzzy (wool, knit, etc.), smooth (leather, silk, etc.), and hard (hell, maybe someone comes to class in armor.) It would probably be best to give them a limit to the number of traits they can consider.

3. Then students could use those specific traits to create the most parsimonious tree using the traits they have written down. During discussion afterward, we could talk about how the traits they chose to consider affected the tree they created, and how adding or taking away traits would change their groupings. This would be particularly helpful since we discuss fossils and the difficulties with fossil species in the same unit.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Stop pushing students toward graduate school!

I read Hope Jahren's post, "ten things to do after you get tenure". (If you're click-averse, all ten boil down to "speak out more on issues that matter"). While I was wondering what mattered enough to speak out about, a friend posted this article from Karen at The Professor is In, about the privilege of tenure-track faculty to ignore the injustice of systemic inequality in adjunct employment. (Note, she is making an analogy to white privilege, a much more serious social problem, and she apologizes for minimizing issues of systemic racism in her subsequent post.)

My husband is an adjunct, I spent my first year here on a temporary contract, and we've been very happy with the treatment of non-tenure-track faculty at UMM. We do not have a large number of adjuncts here, and most of the adjuncts we have are either spouses of tenure-track faculty members on long-term contracts, or people with full-time contracts. I'm not saying there aren't problems. Many adjuncts would like to be tenure-track, and we've lost tenure-track faculty because their spouses could not get permanent positions. But all in all, UMM is not exploiting adjunct labor.

Where we are part of the problem is in encouraging students to go to graduate school for academic career paths when There. Are. No. Jobs.

It's hard to get good data about the academic job market that's specific to anthropology, but trying to read the graphs in this AAA presentation, it looks like 520 PhDs in anthropology were granted in 2009, the most recent year presented, but only 370 jobs were advertised that year. Note, these are jobs advertised on AAA, in other words, these are not all tenure-track jobs. In other words, there aren't even enough jobs for all of us to be exploited adjuncts!

According to the AAA Guide, in 2010-2011, there were only 373 PhDs awarded (239 in cultural anthropology, 78 in archaeology, 37 in biological anthropology, 19 in linguistics.)* I did a quick count of the entry-level, tenure-track jobs in the US or Canada posted on the anthropology job wikis from that year, and there were 82 in cultural anthropology, 17 archaeology, 39 in biological anthropology and 6 in linguistics. This count is probably an over-estimate, since not all entries listed if the job was tenure-track or not (and I assumed they were if I didn't know), plus some jobs were listed on more than one wiki (for example, both on the cultural anthro wiki and linguistics, and I didn't take the time to avoid double-counts). So, in 2010-2011, there were tenure-track jobs posted for only 34% of cultural PhDs, 22% of archaeology PhDs, all of the biological anthropologists (!), and 32% of the linguists. And there are always PhDs from previous years who have not yet found employment and are also on the job market.

Before I got tenure, I was one of a panel of speakers on graduate school in Anthropology/Sociology, and although I was far from acting the cheerleader, I was reluctant to express the full depth of my concerns about the academic career path. I'd be more open now. We shouldn't be pushing students toward academia. For students with the ability to continue on with their education, there are a number of professional programs, from public health, to medical school, to social work, that offer fulfilling careers.

There are a number of reasons we push students toward graduate school:

1. We honestly love our students, and we love our field, and we can see how our beloved students and our beloved field would make such a beautiful, productive couple. Faculty who haven't been on the job market in the past 15 years haven't experienced how hard it is for excellent people to get any job, much less a good job. And those of us who know better can be in denial, because we love our jobs and want the same for our students. Both students and faculty need to educate themselves on the job market reality.

2. When our students attend graduate programs, it's personally validating. It shows that our students are as good as anyone's, that we've taught them so well that they are prepared to thrive in the competitive environment of graduate school. For those of us at undergraduate only institutions, this is the only way we can leave behind academic progeny to the next generation.

3. Finally, (and most problematic), sending students to graduate school can be one of ways that the worth of an undergraduate program is measured. The university - and society at large - is understandably interested in the outcomes of the education we provide. One important outcome is the career paths of our graduates, and we are asked during various review processes to provide information about our alumni. Who went on to graduate school? What professions have they entered? No program here at UMM has been pressured to send more students to graduate school, but it's certainly one metric used in program assessment, and program assessment has implications for funding, for approval of tenure-track searches, and, in bad years, whether or not a program is considered for "reorganization" (a fancy word for getting the ax.)

This isn't to say students should never go on in anthropology. But now that I'm tenured, I feel more free to say "Stop pushing students toward graduate school!"

*Thanks to Michelle Bezanson for the data.