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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 culture is something that was somehow attached to the practice of inquiry at its inception and remains throughout time in order for that practice to be what it is.

One can find evidence of this belief in astronomy in heavy reliance on "tradition" within departments for practices including admissions policies; examination formats and course requirements; and daily social interactions such as astro-ph discussions and Q&A during/after seminars. Appeals to tradition are most frequently raised in defense of the status quo against calls for change (see discussions around dropping the Physics GRE requirement for admissions to Astronomy graduate programs). These appeals imply that our scientific discipline functions as a viable scientific field because of the ways in which scientists interact, and as a result science requires those ways of interaction in order to function at all. A change to the way we do science will necessarily lead to a weakening or breakdown of science itself. 

There is some truth to the linking of interaction and the functionality of science, but the truth is more subtle. First of all, in full disclosure: I've never been a fan of traditions. This is probably because I, as a person of color, can (relatively) clearly see the ways in which traditions benefit white (cisgender, ablebodied, straight) men at the expense of others. But before I could name this particular aspect of the culture of science, I did what I often do when my thinking about a subject is unclear: start with the definition of the word in question. There are many definitions, including definitions specific to biology lab work that don't serve this essay particularly well. Also, definitions can be biased given that one demographic is in charge of printing dictionaries. That said, here's a pretty good hybrid that will serve as a working definition:

Culture: The integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, behavior and values that depends upon the capacity for accumulating and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations. This includes the processes and methods of deciding and communicating what beliefs, practices and pieces of knowledge are valued, and those that are not. 

What stood out to me in learning about culture is that it does not exist without human action. Culture doesn't just float through the aether like some sort of sticker burr, waiting for some passing object or collection of sentient beings to latch onto. It's not a physical object that can be handed down or passed along. Further, there is no single culture that is intrinsic to and essential for the functioning of scientific inquiry. Finally, culture isn't something that the Universe or a god attached to a collective human practice such as science; the practice of science didn't coalesce out of some potential field when the temperature of the Universe dropped to a certain value, and culture didn't then bind to science to make it chemistry, biology or astronomy. 

At this point it might appear that I'm being facetious. But while the end product of what I wrote might appear humorous, I am merely following the logic of some (many) of my colleagues to its natural conclusion. If the ways in which we practice science—our interactions, how we decide what discoveries are "game-changing," how we evaluate the work of our peers for hiring or tenure—are immutable and therefore necessary to preserve as tradition, then culture must be thought of as the inevitable result of potential fields or elementary particles. God said "Let there be science," and there was science, and the associated "way it is done."

What if we took a different view that incorporates the fact that culture is created by collections of people, rather than something that was bestowed upon them long ago? I'll delve into this idea deeper in what follows, but spoiler alert: If culture is something that we continually create, then it is something we can choose to recreate, or discard in order to create afresh when we see a need to do so. The corollary: If our culture does not change, it is only because the humans that comprise it choose not to, and instead decide to continue reproducing the old, existing culture. 

Creating and Recreating Culture

Looking beyond the basic definition of what (astronomy) culture is, the clearest evidence that culture is not essential comes from the simple observation that not all astronomy departments do things the same way. In fact, there is huge variance among the cultures of various astronomy departments, despite the fact that they all comprise collections of astronomers practicing astronomy. So even setting simple dictionary definitions aside for the sake of argument, observed variance in the nature of astronomy culture reveals that there is no essential astronomy culture. Different people in different places do different things to construct the particulars of their culture.

What are some specific, identifiable aspects of a given astronomy (departmental) culture? Let's take a look at how values are communicated, and decisions about what is valuable are made and reinforced. Each morning across the globe astronomers gather to discuss the latest research papers that have been posted to the astro-ph "preprint" repository. These discussions are ostensibly focused on the facts, and just the facts. Do the conclusions of the paper hold up in light of the evidence presented therein, and in other papers? Are the methods of target selection, data collection, and analysis statistically sound and free of bias? 

However, the worthiness of a paper is determined and communicated beyond these "objective" measures (I use scare quotes here because bias can creep into the evaluation of data). I've participated in enough of these discussions to know that if a senior, respected individual expresses a doubt about the veracity of the analysis and conclusions, that person's standing is often enough to establish that doubt as a serious knock against the paper. Even the tone of voice or subtle inflections in the tone of the person presenting the paper can set the basis of whether the paper is believable or considered bunk. Alternatively an expert in the area can provide unverifiable background information that casts doubt on the factual, verifiable (or not) information in the paper ("I've observed with _____, and he doesn't even know the proper procedure for taking flats!") On the other hand, a qualitative comment such as, "I know her, she's super sharp. You can trust her work," can set up a very positive review.

There are many obvious and not-so-obvious ways in which we decide what scientific work is valuable or valueless, and none of these evaluations occur outside of human opinion, biases and weakness (scientific methods can be employed to avoid bias, and indeed are designed to do just that. But employing these methods does not make any human bias-free, despite many people's implicit belief otherwise, myself included). The processes by which we make these decisions and communicate them to others is the process by which we shape our scientific culture. This shaping is manifest in the lessons learned by younger people in the room who are studiously learning how to act as a scientist, what fields are worthy of their attention, what modes of writing are considered credible, and which people they need to impress to move forward in their careers. The shaping also takes place in who gets hired, and therefore goes on to become a member—senior member in particular—of the field* and teaches the next generation how to behave as scientists. Thus, the cycle of creating and re-creating culture goes on.

*Young people worrying about bout their futures: astro-ph reviews are just one part of a multifaceted set of evaluations that lead to success as a scientist. Your last paper was awesome and reviewed positively! :)

The sum total of our actions, beliefs, attitudes, words (written and spoken), and interactions work together to shape a local (or global) scientific culture. If a department has a positive, supportive environment, it's not because it was created that way eons ago. It's because people have decided that their coworkers are valuable to them, and they then made the decision to show their colleagues that they are valued by smiling at them in the hallway, stopping by their office to congratulate them on a major milestone, sending a random email complimenting them on their latest paper or talk (using clear specific words and examples of what worked and why), socializing before and after seminars, etc. These are also likely environments where there is demographic diversity; and not just one-dimensional (we feature white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied men and white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied women!), but along many axes.

Departments with toxic work environments are those in which people pass each other in the hall without making eye contact; work with their office doors closed; only give negative criticism and feedback (if you can't say something negative, don't say anything at all); people yell at each other (for those lucky enough to not work in such a place:  yes, these places exist); senior people harass junior people (sexually, racially, generally) and are not confronted or reprimanded by other members of the department. If people are frequently and visibly happy in your department, then the simple observation of this happiness can be used as evidence for the practices that lead to healthy, positive departmental culture. It's also evident in the diversity of a department, because departments that don't value non-cis-ablebodied men will generally be very monolithic. On the other hand, one should not be surprised about a sexual harassment case springing up in a department in which people infrequently socialize, rarely smile/laugh, avoid eye contact, etc. Behaviors lead to results, and results can provide evidence of common behaviors. Further, these are all mutable because they are simply the sum total of the choices and actions of the people who comprise the social unit (academic class, department, university, scientific society).

Making the Decision to Create Positive Culture Daily

What is culture? In large part it's the various ways in which we decide what is valuable to us, and how we communicate and pass this (and other) knowledge on to others. We do this simply by going about our lives. The ways in which we walk, talk and otherwise move through the world is determined in large part by culture (rules, customs, norms), and these actions feed back into the day-to-day, moment-to-moment creation of culture. This two-way interaction also allows us to assess likely patters of interactions based on observed outcomes within collections of people, such as astronomy departments. Healthy work environments are evident in the behaviors of people and the behaviors of people shape healthy work environments.

I'd argue that the culture of astronomy is not entirely healthy at the moment. This is evident in the monoculture therein, which is still majority male at the highest, most influential ranks, and overwhelmingly white (~90% of US astronomers are white). This outcome wasn't handed down to us from on high, and it needn't define our field. Astronomy would be fully functional, nay, more functional if its demographics followed the national population. The fact that the demographics skew so heavily white is a clear indication of how the culture of astronomy is created and maintained.
Thankfully and encouragingly, I see strong and growing support/desire for change as evidenced in the hundreds(!) of astronomers who attended the AAS anti-racism town hall yesterday. Because of the nature of systemic racism, we needn't identify one evil person who makes it the way it is, nor do we need to imagine a cabal that engineers a white field of science. Systemic racism is thoroughly woven into the fabric of the larger US American culture. All that is needed to make (and keep) astronomy white is people on a daily basis making the decision not to make it otherwise. The same goes for the ingrained sexism, heterosexism, transphobia and ablism that is ingrained in our larger culture, and that is therefore a part of the culture of astronomy. 

Another thing about the systemic nature of our demographic problems (astronomy's exclusivity) is that it seems too big, too daunting to solve. If culture were created at the beginning of time and was essential to the existence of astronomy as a scientific enterprise, then I'd have to agree: there's no point in trying to change it (make no mistake, people make arguments like this all the time!). But what I hope I've conveyed with this essay is the fact that we, all of us, make daily decisions about what we want the culture of astronomy to be. Here's what I see as a way forward:
  1. Identify the key aspects of our culture that work to maintain the status quo and work against marginalized groups. I'll be exploring these aspects point by point in future posts, so stay tuned!
  2. Figure out ways to subvert, circumvent and change the norms that shape the undesirable aspects of culture. An example of this is the evidence-based push to eliminate PGRE scores from grad admissions. Less daunting things include making a point to interact positively and regularly with your colleagues, think carefully about your interactions with minority (minoritized) groups (if you're a dude, be self-critical about the way you interact with female colleagues in, say, astro-ph discussions. Learn the ways that you reinforce a male-dominated space so you don't do those things without thinking)
  3. Following point #2, start out by doing things on small scales and nearby. By keeping things manageable and localized, you'll be able to concentrate your efforts, see more immediate payoffs, all while practicing and experimenting with tactics you might use in the future on larger scales.
  4. Be explicit and intentional in creating your new culture. Sticking with the astro-ph discussion example (and I'm mostly speaking to senior people here), propose new norms of discussion (share the air, keep comments constructive, no ad hominem attacks), and list/discuss them during the first five minutes of each session. Trust me, this really works if you do it unapologetically  and make it habitual. I've done this in other academic spaces, and I look forward to implementing it in my group meetings when I return from sabbatical. 
  5. When you visit other departments, keep your eyes and ears open for practices that work against the status quo, or just plain work well for the people in the department. Make note of them and figure out how you can take them back to your institution. Also pass on advice while you're there. This "cross-pollination" process is exactly how culture is created, reinforced and spread.


Megan Miller said…
John, I appreciate your thoughtful and thought-provoking posts. You always give me a lot to think about. I wanted to add that the discussion on culture is applicable across other career fields, and you provide great points at the end of how to move forward and make changes. It's not easy sometimes, and I left my previous job partially because upper management was not supportive of the cultural changes I was trying to make within my workgroup (among many other factors). There's no real reason to do things just because they've always been done that way, yet so many times people attach themselves to that. I am fortunate that I found a new job with a more positive, open, and inclusive culture, and it makes me happy to know that I was trying to do actually works! But it works here because of support from the top that I wasn't able to get with my previous employer. It can be tough but it is so rewarding when you are able to make a positive change. Even small steps in the right direction are worth celebrating. Have a great weekend!

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