Sunday, September 27, 2015

The good Samaritan

30 ...A certain Black woman went down from Jerusalem to Baltimore, and fell among the local police, who stripped her of her clothing, beat her, and departed, leaving her half dead. 31 Now the woman's family cried #BlackLivesMatter. By chance a certain Twitter egg came along that road. And when he saw her, he passed by on the other side saying #AllLivesMatter. 32 Likewise a Facebook "friend," when she arrived at the place, came and looked, and said #AllLivesMatter! 33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed came by where she was. And when he saw her he had compassion saying, "The struggle is too real. It ain't right, it ain't fair, and I will stand by you, my sister, because #BlackLivesMatter!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Countdown to the NBA Season: Steph Curry and Black Excellence

The Johnson household's favorite NBA player is Steph Curry. Second place is pretty far back there. To us, Curry is emblematic of the values of our family: excellence through dedicated practice, being polite in victory yet accepting your brilliance, being humble in evaluating areas of self-improvement. Oh, and of course #BlackExcellence.

Curry plays the point guard like few other players at that position, either in the past or present. Sure, he does what point guards should do: pass and protect the ball. He can pass the ball in ways that take you back to Magic and the Lakers of the late 80's, or Pistol Pete Marovich of another era. He can handle the ball as well or better than anyone I've ever seen play the game. The ball is an extension of his arm and hand, and it follows his commands like a yoyo on a string.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Activity Based Learning

Lectures are literally medieval. The format is also inherently unfair:
[A] growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students. This is not a matter of instructor bias; it is the lecture format itself — when used on its own without other instructional supports — that offers unfair advantages to an already privileged population.
We can do better. #ABLConnect at Harvard helps educators develop activity-based methods of teaching more effectively. It's not a fad. It's research-based, it's effective, and it's fun. It's also one of the many reasons I left Caltech to join the faculty at Harvard. It is truly refreshing to be at an institution that is serious about teaching innovation. Not just in words, but in resources and actions. Our students and our science depend on it. 

Check out this promotional video featuring yours truly:

Monday, September 14, 2015

On Trump: When you gotta take a clown seriously

Hey, hey, kids! It's Donald and his anti-immigrant crew
My good friend Jorge Moreno​ recently said, "White privilege is being able to say, nonchalantly, that Trump has no chance of becoming president." It was a very consciousness-raising comment for me to hear, and definitely one that has stuck. If you "look" like you belong in this country, then Trump's racist, xenophobic vitriol sounds as nasty as it is, but it doesn't really sink home when there's no risk of his policies becoming reality, thereby threatening your livelihood and life. 

Yes, Trump is a clown. But an uncomfortably large fraction of white Americans not only enjoy watching his clown show, but would be willing to have him lead our country (48% of white Americans view him favorably). This simple statistic should be screaming one obvious message to all of us, and it's not about Trump. It's about white America, and what white America really thinks about non-white Americans. I've seen other explanations for how such a large fraction of our country can mobilize behind such an ignorant, oafish, incurious man with zero foreign policy experience or cogent opinions about how to run our country (he considers a question from a conservative journalist about the names of the leaders of ISIS, Hezbollah and Hamas a "gotcha question." You can't make this up!). But he does hate those "illegals" and he has big plans involving walls and mass deportations. White America apparently eats this up.
Image credit: Peter Steiner
What's particularly galling is that Trump doesn't have to succeed to "win" on this issue. He's already affecting the lives of Latin@ and Hispanic people in our country, whether they are documented citizens, working here on green cards, or in the US without documentation (there are no "illegal" people. "Legal immigrant" status is a social construct, and a recent one at that. All people [should] have the legal right to pursue life, liberty and happiness). How does Trump's racism affect real people? His endorsement of systemic racism provides encouragement, fuel and cover for overt, interpersonal racism. Here's an eye-opening article on this topic from Tina Vasquez writing for The Guardian. An excerpt:
I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 29 of my 30 years. As a light-skinned, biracial Latina in one of the most diverse and Mexican-centric cities in the nation, I have never been asked the type of questions I’m now fielding from white people. I’m not the only one experiencing an uptick in seemingly out-of-the-blue racist exchanges. Latina journalist Aura Bogado recently tweeted about a strange interaction at a grocery store. My father recently told me a white neighbor he’s been friendly with since moving into the neighborhood 15 years ago, casually inquired about his citizenship status. As the days go on, I hear more of these kinds of stories from Latino friends and family members. 
For an elegant, well-researched, yet depressing framework for understanding what's going down right now, and what has been going down since ~1960 when the Party of Lincoln collectively went on the warpath against people of color, check out Ian Haney Lopez's Dog Whistle Politics. I also recommend Aviva Chomsky's Undocumented (yup, she's the daughter of Noam and Carol Chomsky. h/t Jorge for the reco!), and Juan Gonzalez's Harvest of Empire (available in both book and movie format). But all that is contained in these resources is nicely summed up by Vasquez:
White Americans can argue Trump is the all-American underdog, the anti-PC, shoot-from-the-hip politician they’ve been waiting for; that their support stems from an appreciation for someone willing to stand up for everything that once made America “great.” Yes, Trump is unabashedly American – in the way that racism and xenophobia are as American as apple pie. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sunday Music break

Guest post by Erin

Huge shout-out to NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts for bringing these into my life:

Oddisee's music and lyrics have been the soundtrack for life in Casa Juanson for the past few months. Leon Bridges (from TX!) joined him on my playlist last night and I foresee his timeless voice will be there the for a minute.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Guest post by Elisabeth Newton: The Impostor Cycle

Elisabeth Newton is a sixth-year graduate student at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for astrophysics. Her research focus is on developing methods of measuring the physical properties of low-mass stars as a member of the MEarth team. 

The players: 
Awesome Grad Student - a talented senior grad student who experiences imposter thoughts
Superb Young Grad Student - another talented astronomer-in-training, perhaps in their second year,  who is struggling with imposter syndrome
Nice Faculty Member - a respected person in their profession

The scene: The awkward moment after a talk when everyone is hanging around. Awesome Graduate Student has just delivered a great talk on their research.

And, action! Awesome Grad Student (AGS) expresses their relief to Superb Young Grad Student: “I’m so glad that’s over, I wasn’t prepared at all! I was finishing my slides up until the last minute!” **

“Don’t worry about it, that was an awesome talk, AGS!” Superb Young Grad Student says, trying to reassure AGS, but thinking: “If that’s what AGS can throw together last minute, I’m never going to be able to work hard enough to give a talk as good as that!”

Nice Faculty Member, kindly and truthfully, complements the speaker: “Why AGS, that was truly an excellent talk you just gave! Your research is most compelling,” and Superb Young Grad Student chimes in, “Seriously AGS, it was fantastic!”

AGS is uncomfortable with the complement and still demurs. “Uh, I don’t know. I really stumbled over a few things.” The culture AGS grew up in makes it socially unacceptable to acknowledge having done a good job. Moreover, they are still uncertain in their capacity as graduate student just starting to take control of their own research program, and AGS also struggles with feelings of self doubt.

Nice Faculty Member congratulates AGS again, and leaves the two graduate students alone. AGS expresses their doubts to their colleague: “I can’t believe Nice Faculty Member thinks my research is cool, it is so not that interesting.” 

Superb Young Grad Student tries to reassure AGS again, as their own imposter thoughts rear up: “I wonder what AGS thinks of my research? AGS has the most badass research program… mine is never going to amount to anything.”

This interaction sounds a bit silly when I write it out, but I’ve heard it played out many times throughout grad school. A faculty member doesn’t have to be involved — most of the times I can recall it was enacted between grad students — and it might have to do with research, or classes, or awards. I’ve been the grad student uncertain about the compliment they’ve just been paid, and the response is automatic, a reflection of my own imposter thoughts. I’ve also been the student on the receiving end of a friend’s doubts, and it’s tiring to have to reassure them, and it seeds imposter thoughts. 

It took me three years of grad school to realize that this scenario was being played out over and over again. It’s a lot easier to brush off the imposter thoughts (in the role of “Superb Young Grad Student”) now that I know what’s going on. It turns out it’s harder to stop playing the role of “Awesome Grad Student.” I can’t just turn off my own self-doubts, but this isn’t about me, it’s about how I’m making someone else feel. That makes it easier to give the appropriate response: “Thank you so much. I worked really hard,** and I’m glad you enjoyed it."

** Author’s note: it could be true that AGS just finished their slides and didn’t practice at all, but I guarantee that if this is the case, there were years of research, dozens of previous slides, and however-many previous talks that allowed them to get away with being less prepared this time.