Tuesday, 11 October 2016

On not falling over

Once, when I was on a skiing holiday with a friend, we got to talking about our week so far. I said that I was glad I hadn't fallen over yet. My friend responded "If you haven't fallen over, it means you're not trying hard enough". I was surprised by this. I'd just done the hardest run in the resort that day. To my mind, not falling over meant, simply, that I was good at skiing.
I have a feeling similar to this every time people discuss grades at school and university, and, more specifically, the importance of failure as a learning tool. I don't doubt that recovering from failure shows determination (though when we praise those who overcome failure, we should be careful of survivor bias). And I don't doubt that evaluating someone solely based on grades, without looking at grade progression, background, research experience and so on is foolish. But the description of straight A students, therefore of me, that tends to accompany these debates, sticks in my craw somewhat. Because, like my friend's assessment of my skiing ability, the fact that I'm good at what I do is taken as prima facie evidence that it's all effortless and, somehow, a scam.
Being a straight A student is not effortless. It takes work. In my case, it took discipline, a lot of it. Furthermore, the idea that just because the grades don't show a progression, there is no wrestling with concepts, ideas, no struggles, is erroneous. Those things happen. It's just that, for some reason, with the straight A student, the breakthrough happens before the test, so there is never any evidence of it. The illusion of effortlessness is just that: the straight A student is the swan, gliding gracefully across the mirror like lake, legs paddling furiously underneath.
The other idea that attaches to straight A students, which characterizes me even less, is that somehow, we do not learn the material, we merely learn to take tests. I won't deny that good grades can act as a motivator (and, more tellingly, that bad grades act as a discouragement). But the relationship is more subtle. For me in particular, the good grades worked in combination with my genuine interest in the subjects to create a virtuous circle, one where the external rewards of effort combined with the internal drive of interest to make working for school fun. Yes, fun. As much as exams stressed me, there were times when being given 3 hours to write essays on topics I loved (looking at you general paper from part II zoology) was actually almost a pleasure. 
There are limitations to being a straight A student. Most obviously with me, the fact that I started out good and became excellent in most academic subjects meant that it took me a long time to learn how to deal with those things I wasn't good at from the start (sports comes to mind, but also the violin).  But that doesn't mean that I wasn't good at the things I was good at. It just means that I didn't devote much energy to things I wasn't good at. Then again, many not straight A students do this too (we all do, in fact). The other issue is that straight A students have trouble differentiating adequate performance from actually bad performance. It also took me a long time to recognise that, when hard work yields a reward (a good grade), it is easier to do then when it doesn't. I have immense respect for the C and B students of this world who work their arses off consistently, despite never seeing a consistent A.
As for the question of failure, I have mixed feelings on this. I never failed academically by any measure. Perhaps my first true failure was failing to secure employment straight after my PhD. I overcame that failure, but I'm not sure what I learnt from it. That I was tenacious? I think I learnt that from teaching myself linear algebra in grad school just as much. And besides, my failure would have been impossible to overcome without the successes that came before it. When we focus on failure, we deny people the joy of success that comes from practiced skill.
When we overly lionise the educational importance of failure, and fail to recognise the effort that goes into sustained success, we undermine a lot of hard work. And when we suggest that all straight A students are intellectual frauds, we deny them the joy of their achievement, and the value of their work. These messages reach straight A students early: I think I was nine or ten when my teachers first started telling me to expect to start failing at some point, some as a warning, others, somewhat more gleefully. No one likes a tall poppy. I can understand teachers not focusing on straight A students. I have more trouble with teachers undermining them. It happens more often than you might think.
It is possible to critique the narrowness of our systems of evaluation, and the flaws inherent in our educational systems, without casting aspersions on the efforts and joys of those individuals who do well in them. There is pleasure in racing down skillfully from mountaintop to village, carving into the snow with practiced ease knowing that this, you are good at.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

A messy machine

This week in journal club, we revisited a classic paper of evolutionary biology, Stephen J. Gould and Richard C. Lewontin's famous/infamous The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptionist Programme, a paper that, among other things, has made amateur architectural history something of a cottage industry among evolutionary biologists. "Spandrels", as it is often known, is almost impossible to discuss as a scientific paper among biologists of a certain age.* It is a cultural artefact, a signifier of its times. Any discussion of "Spandrels" immediately becomes a historiography, an attempt to, on the one hand, understand it in its context that is no longer around us, and, on the other, detect its influence on the different world in which we now live. "Spandrels" is, depending on who you talk to, either the hallmark of a small but significant paradigm shift in evolutionary biology, or the beginning of an unhelpful tangent that has needlessly distracted evolutionary biologists for decades.
But taken on its own terms, "Spandrels" is a bizarre thing. Certainly, it is a kind of paper we would be unused to seeing today. It is a straight up, unapologetic, highly (and variably effectively) rhetorical polemic. As its name implies, it is a critique, not of data, but of ways of thinking. "Spandrels" is all argument, no new data.**
What I think is most interesting about "spandrels" in that regard is the insight it gives us into the messy machine that is science. Specifically, it challenges simplistic notions about what science is.
In her speech accepting the nomination for  presidential candidate for the Democratic party, Hillary Clinton said at one point "I believe in Science". The reaction among scientists (on social media, because that's how I gauge reactions among scientists) was divided into two camps. One we shall call camp relief (as "Thank you, thank you, an existential dread has been slightly lifted from my shoulders"). The other we shall call camp epistemological frustration, best exemplified by this facebook response. Specifically point 2 "Rather, science is a philosophical approach to understanding one's world - one which is rooted in doubt, skepticism and formal testing methods". To which I would add only one thing:
"science, among other things, is a philosophical approach to understanding one's world - one which is rooted in doubt, skepticism and formal testing methods"
Because science is also a social activity, undertaken by people (Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin) supported by institutions (Harvard University, the Royal Society of Great Britain). And these are very much things we can believe (in the sense of have faith) in. Science is values, such as assumptions of good faith (sorely tested of late) and "nullius in verba". Science is also norms of ethics and even of esthetics. Some will argue that these things are ancillary to science's epistemological foundation. Which I think is nonsense. Unless you want to subscribe to some Walden-esque neo-Rousseauian vision where science is limited to ascertaining the depth of ponds we can measure by our own, the social and institutional structures of science, and the Trust which underpins them, are as crucial to science as any theory of knowledge. For without them, no aggregate, collaborative, progressive, growing science is possible.
Science is a messy machine, and like all messy machines we are tempted to make it seem simple, But when we say "science is self correcting", it is like when we say "markets find solutions", or "the eventual overthrow of the Bourgeoisie is an inevitable consequence of capitalism". It makes complex, non linear, messy human processes seem cleaner than they are. And in the process, it obscures all the awful things that humans do when they feel they actions are not being judged.
Because the attitude that limits science to an abstracted epistemological process, the attitude that obscures the social structures that allow science to work, even when it is for the best of reasons, is cousins to the attitude that tells people of color, and women, and disabled folk, and gay folk, and people from developing countries, that the barriers they face are not part of science.
Only an inclusive definition of science, that includes as parts of science the epistemology as well as the institutions, and ultimately, the people DOING the science, can argue that the structural inequalities of science are scientific problem. And to solve those structural inequalities, we must believe they are a problem, and we must believe we can fix them.

*I've noticed with some amusement, being at the tail end of that generation, that younger biologists are completely nonplussed by the paper's tone and cultural importance.
** In that respect, it is very similar, and knowing Gould I suspect this is no coincidence, to Simpson's slim Magnum Opus Tempo and Mode in Evolution

Sunday, 12 June 2016

There is work to be done

At our wedding a little over a year ago, my mother gave a speech. It was not the standard wedding speech, about me and my husband and our love. Rather, my mother, historian, 60s revolutionary, woman, gave a rousing barnstormer. She celebrated and reminded all of us present of all that had been achieved in living memory to make our same sex wedding, surrounded by friends and family, possible. And she ended with a warning, a warning that none of these things that had been achieved were set in stone. That there were forces set on taking them back. We all loved the speech; it is one of the things that everyone remembers from the day. But after today, I find myself looking back on my mother's speech, and wondering at her prescience.
Two men set out to kill LBGT today, in the midst of our month of celebration, in our safe places. One of those men failed, thankfully. The other succeeded, horrifically. Their stated reasons were probably radically different. And here lies a deep, sad, awful truth of today: there are many, many voices in the world today that will preach murderous hate of LBGT people. And many of those voices have great power and great reach. Some are adherents of violent Islamic sects, some represent strands of Christianity in Africa, or the US, and some are simply political viciousness. We cannot pretend those voices are not there, are not loud, do not have power. We cannot pretend that those that would harm us have been kept in check by recent changes. We cannot pretend those changes are  not still weak, and could not be taken away.
And so, there is work to be done. Have some of us become complacent? Perhaps, but let us not be too harsh on that. The illusion of normalcy, the scenery of security, how long some in our community have yearned for those. It was tempting to buy into that. I doubt there is an LBGT person in the US who still feels secure today, no matter how blue their postcode, how nice their wedding album. It is a hard awakening.
What is to be done? We must, in our communities, our schools, our families, oppose those voices, even if they are just whispers. We must affirm those who do righteous work, who support and embrace the humanity of queer folk of all stripes unequivocally. And in our communities we must censure those, no matter where they come from, who equivocate on this. Note I said censure, not censor. This is not about legislating hate speech, or tiresome debates about freedom of speech. This is about the values which we choose to uphold. We cannot allow these voices of hate to nourish the actions of those who desire to spill blood for infamy.
It is unacceptable that the humanity, indeed survival, of LBGT people are used as political tools in Africa and the Middle East. It is unacceptable for Islamic clerics, or evangelical church leaders, to preach death against non cis-hetero people. It is unacceptable when the Catholic church denies the full love of God to its gay members, and ignores its responsibility in their suffering as a result. It is unacceptable that the Anglican communion has chosen a fig leaf of unity at the expense of upholding the humanity of its LBGT congregants. It is unacceptable that the dignity of Transgender individuals has become the political tool du Jour in American culture wars.
And conversely we must affirm what we believe. If your school does not have a PFLAG chapter, found one. If your congregation is not explicitly inclusive, demand change or leave. Do not sit through homophobic sermons, or speeches, or thanksgiving tirades. Do not let children learn cruel patterns from the adults around them.
Some of these changes will require law, and we must agitate for that. But others, many, will require instead the difficult work of changing a culture, changing what is acceptable. And we must support all those who affirm our humanity, as much as we censure those who do not.
The epidemic of American mass shooting indeed has causes outside homophobia, or racism. But those who commit these acts do so in a complex cultural bath that involves gun culture, notoriety, and social rhetoric about who is other, who is less than, who is to be hated. We must fight those who provide justification for violent hate, and stoke the fires of murderous rage.
The arc of history does not bend toward justice; we pull it there.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

What my husband sees

A propos of many things preoccupying me right now.

My husband doesn't see the stalled papers, the floundering analysis, the discovery of unforeseen sources of error that send us back to the drawing board. My husband doesn't see that the first trial of new experiments to yield the preliminary results for my grant didn't quite pan out. My husband doesn't see the deadline get skipped, the need to do a second batch of experiments unplanned between now and the all hands on deck summer.
My husband only hears second hand the balancing act of resources between projects: the grant that pays me, the project that may be my own grant, the preliminary data for my PIs new grant. My husband isn't there for the meetings to plan what happens next, to allocate time, to discuss overcoming setbacks, to distribute tasks. My husband doesn't feel the continuous, ever present feeling that there are not enough hours to do everything. My husband isn't there when my PI and I have long, frank conversations about what I need to do to get hired, and how to balance that with what I need to do for the grant that pays me.
All my husband sees is that I have worked most weekends in the past two months. All my husband knows is that I asked to move our first year anniversary weekend trip by a few weeks to put in those few extra experiments. That almost all weekends between now and mid august are booked, taken by science. There'll be no back country camping trip, or trip to the beach, this summer. All my husband knows is that every get together with friends starts with a list of evenings I can't. "You go, but I have pigs. Maybe I'll join you later".
My husband also sees me exhausted, and defeated, when things go wrong. He sees me after I've been kept awake for hours wondering how I'm going to get everything I need to get done done. He sees me work long hours, then come home and always be tempted to run to my office to do an analysis, or read a paper. He knows when I'm going to negotiate a Saturday morning at work. He sighs wearily when I say "I'm taking my laptop with me on the weekend".
My husband has been with me since grad school, and he understands that I need to work hard. He understands this is a grueling game I'm playing. But in his eyes, I already put in more hours then I should. In his eyes, my work is already everywhere, like a Virginia creeper that needs to be watched and fought lest it stifle the house.
I'm currently working very hard on eliminating counter productive time sinks from my nine to five, to maximise what I get out of the day. Partly, it's for me. I need to be more productive, I need to use my time better. But partly, it's for him. I've begged and borrowed and stolen enough hours from us. There needs to be a limit.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Good advice I received

It's been a tough couple of weeks for me of late work wise, mostly of my own doing. I don't deal well with screwing up, or disappointing people. But amidst it all, I received some very good advice from my sister, who is a very wise woman:

"Don't be ashamed. Embarrassed maybe, but not ashamed. It is noble but unnecessary. You have broken some regulations, no ones limbs. Or hearts."

Learning to respond reasonably and proportionally to your own mistakes is also a skill, and for those of us who pride ourselves on our rectitude, not an easy one.

She also recommended good chocolate and a run. She was right on both counts.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

"We can live here"

We've been in Ohio nearly three years. Three years.
Neither my husband, who'd grown up in Orlando and DC, nor I, who'd grown up in a global city of 8 million people, had ever lived somewhere like North East Ohio. The closest I'd come were a couple of weeks spent with family friends in Western Michigan. The closest my husband had come was visiting his brother at university in Oklahoma.
Did we arrive with preconceptions? Yes, of course. He's east coast, big city. I'm a Londoner. There's a certain amount of unavoidable snobbery baked into both those world views. But there is also the very legitimate reality that the way one lives in big, metropolitan, cosmopolitan areas, the sources of pleasure, the expectations, the coping mechanisms, are very different to what one finds in the semi-rural rust belt. Putting aside judgments, it is simply true that, to an extent, a big city transplant out here is somewhat ill-prepared for this environment.
So there was some trepidation. Moving into the tiny town where the university I work at is based, just before the onset of one of the hardest winters in the region in years, did not help.
Perhaps the hardest thing to deal with initially was the isolation. In the winter especially, people don't leave their houses much. There are no pubs where one can find ersatz community as a newcomer. More subtly, people here are from here. Their families and friends from their whole lives are all nearby. Unlike in a largely transient city like DC or London, not everyone out here is desperate to make new friends. For newcomers, it takes a lot of work to build a social network, especially outside of work.
So it was hard initially. There were hard days, there were days when we both pined for our former lives in the big city. Yet also, from the beginning, there were good things: good jobs for both of us, good bosses who understood how hard life was sometimes, and, quicker perhaps than we thought, good friends. In this last regard, it helps that LBGT folk out here look after their own, once they find them.
And there are things to do. One has to drive more, and look harder, and develop new habits, but there are things to do. There are concerts and museums in Cleveland to explore. There are restaurants, ranging from country steakhouses unchanged since the '70s where you get an amazing steak dinner for 20 bucks, to fine dining restaurants. There are lakes and state parks aplenty. And there is space. And space means room to take up hobbies. I have my piano, my husband has a dark room in the basement and a painter's studio in the attic. We have two small yards, and for the first time in my life I can devote time to learning how to garden. There is cooking, and having friends over for dinner (as I say, our house is the best restaurant in our town, it's just hard to get a table).
For Easter, we had my husband's family over. Our large, old, slightly ramshackle, slightly run down but beautiful house has enough rooms that we had two couples over, each with their own room. On a beautiful, sunny Easter sunday, after service at the local episcopal church, I was finishing up supper in the kitchen. The family were out in the back yard, sitting around the table and drinking champagne. And it felt like home.
In the front yard, the daffodils and tulips I planted in the cold last days of fall have bloomed. When we moved to this house last October, I had also transferred to the soil a clematis and a rose bush I'd been keeping in pots on the balcony of our first place in Ohio. I trimmed them back at the end of winter, and they are growing like crazy. Soon the clematis will flower bright purple, and the rose bush will begin to put forth yellow flowers, as they will for years, even after we leave. We have left roots here now.
When I get up in the morning and look out on that front yard in the sun, like Tenar at the end of LeGuin's Tehanu, I know we can live here. I don't know that we will, but I know that we can, and that is an encouraging thought.

"One does not love breathing"

"Until I feared I might lose it, I never loved to read.
One does not love breathing" Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Two weekends ago I was in Washington DC with the husband. The weather, which was supposed to be cold, turned out lovely, one of those perfect DC days when the sun is warm but not hot, the sky is blue, and the exuberant mid Atlantic spring turns every yard and every park into a riot of colour.
We were staying in north east, just off H street, at a friend's town house. We've stayed there many times. In fact the husband lived there for the year we were apart after I had to move back to the UK after finishing my PhD. So I know the area well. On the Sunday morning (to overcome the over indulgence of the night before), I went for a walk in the glorious DC spring. Ostensibly, I went in search of coffee. In truth, I went in search of what has always been my third place.
I grew up (as I may have mentioned before) in the heart of a big city. A big city where driving is very much optional, and far from practical. From the time I was old enough, I walked with my parents throughout our neighborhood. I walked to the gated square at the end of the block for which we had a key. Then later I walked to Holland park. My school was a twenty minute walk away, so sometimes my older brother or sister would walk me home. At eleven, I was giving my own set of keys, and permission to walk to and from school on my own. And from that day, London was to me as the Shire was to Bilbo: a place to explore on foot. In my head I have a mental map of most of the center of that city. I have walked from Ealing to St Katherine Docks, and from Camden to Clapham.
Walking in London became my third place: the whole city, as long as I was on foot, a place for thought and escape, a place that was neither at home not at work but that was mine. Walking home from school, I would take detours through the parks if it have been a long day, or if it was a sunny day. I remember once stepping out of school into driving summer rain. Rather than go home, I went to Hyde park, and walked in the downpour until I was soaked through. Walking became how I process my thoughts, how I establish what's important, how I calm my nerves.
In French, there is a word for walking aimlessly in the city: "Flaner". The closest equivalent in English is to stroll, though one can stroll through the country, or one can stroll to a destination. "Flaner" can involve neither. "Flaner" invites, encourages serendipitous, aimless exploration of the city. "Flaner" is what results in stumbling on a tiny church park one has never seen behind one of London's busy shopping streets, or stumbling on the Monument to the great fire on a sunny day and climbing it.
As I was strolling in vaguely aimless search of coffee in DC that sunny sunday morning, I felt closer to home, and closer to myself than I had in long time. And I realised, not for the first time, how much this inability to walk chafes me living in Ohio.
One can, and I have, debated quite how inimical to walking my current situation is. But it was in DC that I realised it was not so much the physical activity of walking that I miss here. It is the impossibility of "flaner". When I lived in the small town (little more than a highway exit) where our university is based, there was literally no where I could walk from my doorstep, not effortlessly, not pleasantly. The roads had no sidewalks and narrow verges, cars went fast, and there were no paths through the countryside to explore, no byways. Even the state parks, pretty as they are, have limited walking options. Paths are short and disjointed, and one must drive to the state park which to me, limits the spontaneity. The counrtyside of France and England that I am used to has footpaths at every doorstep, leading to fields and forests and home again. My aunt's house in Alsace has the local equivalent of Bilbo;s map of the shire in it: each path marked from doorstep to mountaintop. I could write an entire blog on how my European hiking habits are poorly adapted to American hiking, even though the rewards of American hiking are breathtaking.
 Even back here in the city, the walking options are limited. The layout of most American cities, ravaged by the construction of transurban highways, is confusing to the pedestrian. One will quickly end up on a busy road, side walks vanish, and, for the most part, there are no shops to discover, no hidden pubs to find, no magnificent flower beds in tiny squares hiding behind rows of sedate houses.
And so, here in Ohio, I have been robbed of my third place. And I am often restless, frustrated, in ways that I cannot quite identify, until I remember how I used to deal with that feeling: by grabbing my keys and my wallet and walking somewhere, anywhere, through the streets of London, my own Shire.