Skip to main content

When life hands you an imfamous email...

...make good-advice lemonade. Or something.

Anyway, here's an excellent blog response by Lucianne Walkowicz, who is one of my favorite astronomers (picture at left). An excerpt:

"There’s been a lot of conversation about an email sent to students in a certain astronomy department, which originally appeared here: 
"While I certainly think the original email was problematic, with an eau d’ 'we walked uphill both ways in the snow' about it, I also think there were seeds of good advice buried in it– both for students and those further along. 
"In the following, I’ve tried to cultivate those seeds into some advice for being an astronomer, largely based on my own philosophy of course. I’m sure not everyone will agree with these points, and it should be noted that as I don’t have a permanent job yet, I don’t know whether these are “successful” strategies in the long term. Perhaps one day we will share a laugh over this post, just before I ask you if you want fries with that."
I'm still mulling things over myself. I think The Email was good for sparking discussion, and I've had many good conversations. I stand by my main point in my initial reaction, but I think that initial reaction was limited in scope. There's much more that I want to say about how communication is badly lacking in astronomy (as illustrated by the fact that there existed an email rather than an in-person conversation with the students), and how ironic that is given that science is supposed to be based on communication. I also want to address the way we treat each other in scientific meetings, classes, referee reports, etc. But I feel that I need to grapple with my own past hypocrisy first.

Anyway, until then, it's like what Lucianne said.

You cannot control how people interact with you, only how you interact with them. 
Being a jerk and being smart do not share a causal relationship. It is fine to challenge a speaker with a question, but keep it respectful– learning stops as soon as arrogance steps in. 
It’s also important to realize that we work in a field where various of our colleagues have difficulty picking up on social cues. Not everyone who seems like they are being a jerk is actually doing so on purpose. 
Dealing with aggressive questioning can be very challenging for students, as the ability to weather the storm relies on having enough confidence in the material to not become rattled. This is difficult, because the nature of being a student is for that information to be still fresh and malleable in one’s mind. For mentors, the challenge is to have a supportive enough environment in general such that the occasional difficult Q&A doesn’t seem like a personal attack. 
A simple step towards making these situations less charged is just to talk with students about strategies for dealing with questions, which will depend on the individual and their strengths. Although taking the learn-to-swim-via-a-swift-kick-into-the-deep-end approach seems it would teach students what to do in these situations, it doesn’t. It just models poor behavior that they then perpetrate on others.

Seriously, check out her full post.


Lucianne said…
Thank you John! You are also one of my favorite astronomers :D

Popular posts from this blog

An annual note to all the (NSF) haters

It's that time of year again: students have recently been notified about whether they received the prestigious NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship. Known in the STEM community as "The NSF," the fellowship provides a student with three years of graduate school tuition and stipend, with the latter typically 5-10% above the standard institutional support for first- and second-year students. It's a sweet deal, and a real accellerant for young students to get their research career humming along smoothly because they don't need to restrict themselves to only advisors who have funding: the students fund themselves!
This is also the time of year that many a white dude executes what I call the "academic soccer flop." It looks kinda like this:

It typically sounds like this: "Congrats! Of course it's easier for you to win the NSF because you're, you know, the right demographic." Or worse: "She only won because she's Hispanic."…

Culture: Made Fresh Daily

There are two inspirations for this essay worth noting. The first is an impromptu talk I gave to the board of trustees at Thatcher School while I was visiting in October as an Anacapa Fellow. Spending time on this remarkable campus interacting with the students, faculty and staff helped solidify my notions about how culture can be intentionally created. The second source is Beam Times and Lifetimes by Sharon Tarweek, an in-depth exploration of the culture of particle physics told by an anthropologist embedded at SLAC for two decades. It's a fascinating look at the strange practices and norms that scientists take for granted.
One of the stories that scientists tell themselves, whether implicitly or explicitly, is that science exists outside of and independent of society. A corollary of this notion is that if a scientific subfield has a culture, e.g. the culture of astronomy vs. the culture of chemistry, that culture is essential rather than constructed. That is to say, scientific c…

The subtle yet real racism of the Supreme Court

Judge Roberts, a member of the highest court in the land, which is currently hearing the sad story of mediocre college aspirant Abigail Fischer, recently asked, "What unique ­perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class? I’m just wondering what the benefits of diversity are in that situation?" 
Did you catch the white supremacy in this question? If not, don't feel bad because it's subtly hidden beneath the cloaking field of colorblind racism. (As for Scalia's ign'nt-ass statements, I'm not even...)
Try rephrasing the question: "What unique perspective does a white student bring to a physics classroom?" The answer is, of course, absolutely nothing! Why? Because race isn't biological, and is therefore not deterministic of cognitive abilities. Did you perhaps forget that you knew that when considering Roberts' question? If so, again, it's understandable. Our society and culture condition all of us to forget basic facts …