Life

Essay on being a short person in academe

I am a five-foot-tall female physicist. You hear a lot about the challenges facing women in physics. These are real, and the percentage of physics bachelor’s degrees earned by women has stagnated at just over 20 percent for more than a decade. Being a woman in physics can be hard, but being a short physicist seems even harder to me. Why don’t we ever talk about the challenges of being short? 

Gender is the most prominent feature that we use to categorize ourselves, beginning from the first question asked after we are born: Is it a boy or a girl? The hypothesis that women are less intelligent or less cognitively capable of certain tasks has been around for a long time. For a while it was attributed to brain size, then the Y chromosome, then hormones circulating in the body, and now prenatal hormone exposure.

For some reason, our society wants to believe that women aren’t as smart as men. When a woman feels out of place in a male-dominated environment, she is understandably tempted to attribute it to her gender -- and she may be right. 

But when I find myself feeling out of place and not quite knowing why, I tend to blame it on my height. Whether on the athletic field, in an elevator, or in the lab, I am generally the shortest person present. At my height, 19 out of every 20 women I meet are taller than I am. The average man soars 10 inches above me. High heels cannot make up 10 inches. 

As kids, we all wait to grow into the world around us, and the average 12-year-old is close to my height. It wasn’t until I was an undergraduate at Yale University that I had to admit the world would never be designed for me. I was somehow happily oblivious in college to the challenges faced by women, but the challenges faced by short people were obvious to me, every day. I could not reach things on high shelves in the labs and libraries. I could not sit with my feet flat on the floor with my back supported in many classroom chairs.  

The challenges continued in my graduate research lab at Harvard University. I wasn’t large enough to flip the dewar that held our cryogenic microscope. I wasn’t strong enough to loosen a bolt. When I couldn’t find where my peers had put something, I learned to get on the step stool and look at their eye level. 

I looked ridiculous using all my body weight at an awkward angle to pull a liquid helium tank down the hall. The cleanroom ran out of the small sizes of “bunny suits” that are required to enter the cleanroom fabrication facilities. Small people were expected to wear larger ones, since big people cannot physically fit into smaller ones. 

The biggest safety hazard was the location of a hot plate in a fume hood. The point of a fume hood, a structure that allows you to put your hands into a space that has its own ventilation, is to keep toxic fumes on the inside, away from the air you breathe. Short people simply took a deep breath before sticking their heads into the fume hood. 

My six-foot-tall female labmate didn’t have these problems. 

I now work at a women’s college. The environment is eye-opening. 

The brightest student in the class is a woman. The most studious student is a woman. The struggling student is a woman. The slacker is a woman. The geek is a woman. The most aggressive and most outgoing students are women. Even the student who talks the most in class is a woman. 

When I need help reaching the screen at the front of the room to pull it down, it’s a 5’6’’ woman who comes to my rescue. Prizewinners are always women, and leadership positions always go to women. We may still categorize the people we meet, but it’s no longer based on gender. 

I received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2010, considered one of the most prestigious awards bestowed upon young scientists. There were two things that statistically increased the chances of receiving the PECASE that year through the National Science Foundation: being a woman; and being named Ben. You are unlikely to hear the accusation that you won “just because your name is Ben,” yet women are told that they receive awards because of their gender, not their qualifications. 

A women’s college naturally provides many female role models, but predicting effective role models is not straightforward. For some, identifying with a role model is critical to pursuing an unusual path, but a good match is not as straightforward as being the same gender, race, or sexuality. 

I never needed or wanted female role models in physics. But I do need short role models in sports.  Watching someone much larger than you excel on the field is not helpful. Seeing someone your size outcompete a larger person is motivating, and educational. One striking part of my interview at Mount Holyoke was how short the (male) dean of faculty was. I more recently met the (short, female) director of the American Association of Physics Teachers. I didn’t think I was looking for five-foot-tall role models in leadership, but maybe that’s because I hadn’t met any. 

While I intellectually recognize that being a woman in physics has presented challenges, I viscerally know that being short is difficult. That I haven’t volunteered my race or sexuality suggests I’m white (which is true) and heterosexual (also true). 

When someone speaks over me in a meeting or repeats my idea more loudly as their own, I assume it’s due to my physical stature, not because I’m a woman. And for all of you who are ever in a meeting and notice this happening, it’s your cue to say, “Thank you for reinforcing the point made by... .” That’s all it takes to change a frustrating environment into an affirming one, in a noncontroversial way. 

If we all make an effort to do small things like that more often — to recognize that the categories by which we sort people are limited, and that talent comes in all shapes and colors and follows many different trajectories through life — then perhaps an essay like this will someday simply start with the statement: “I am a physicist.” 

Katherine Aidala is an associate professor of physics at Mount Holyoke College.

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Photo by Grace Fitzpatrick, Mount Holyoke College
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Katherine Aidala of Mount Holyoke (left), with a taller colleague, Spencer Smith

Essay on conflict between activism and career advancement, after Ferguson

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Post-Ferguson, how can young scholars balance their desire to join in activism with the demands of winning tenure? Kerry Ann Rockquemore considers the issues.

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Essay on how academics can use small chunks of time

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Nate Kreuter seeks more productivity by making better use of those groups of minutes between major tasks.

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Essay reflecting on memorial services at colleges and universities

I will never forget the advice that the late and great Rev. Peter Gomes of Harvard University gave to me after my appointment as university chaplain. I expressed my concerns about being only 29 years old in this position and my fears about not being respected by older administrators. He told me that he too had been appointed to his position at a very young age. He then encouraged me to never forget that “Any time an older president, provost, dean, or professor gives you a hard time, remember that you will eulogize them all!”

He was, of course, with his trademark irreverent-yet-holy brilliance, reminding me that the academic and ministerial vocational journey is more marathon than it is sprint, and that all challenges eventually pass. I missed, somehow, the literal truth to what he was saying. A large and important part of the work of college and university chaplaincy is the planning of and the presiding over memorial services for faculty, staff and administrators. And I have found that these memorials are about more than remembering and honoring departed colleagues. They are also an opportunity for us to pause and consider what our own legacies will be.  

Even at smaller colleges and universities, it is difficult to imagine knowing the entire faculty or all the members of the staff and administration. In my case there are some members of our community whom I have known since my undergraduate days here. Others I know only by reputation. Some I only meet via the memories and stories that I hear at their memorial services.    

These services are as profound as they are simple. As healing as they are grief-filled. 

Serving as a chaplain at a nonsectarian university, I help to craft a service that is accessible for all who will attend while simultaneously being true to the individual we are remembering. Sometimes an individual was a person of faith and sometimes not. 

This points to what I think is the first difference between a funeral and a memorial service. Funerals tend to be driven more by the family of the deceased and by any last wishes left behind. A funeral service is more likely to be a religious service reflecting one’s faith or the faith of the family. A memorial service at a college usually reflects the institution where one taught. That does not mean a service is devoid of faith or religion, but rather it is not the driving theme of the service. Likewise funerals, particularly religious ones, incorporate an element of ritual or certain rites. Memorials tend to emphasize remembrances rather than rites.

Most of the memorial services that I have seen on college campuses seem to follow a similar format. There is an opening of some sort and this is traditionally done by a chaplain or department chair. After that, an administrator will offer remarks. Following the president or dean, several colleagues from the department and sometimes from other institutions will speak.  And, when appropriate, current or former students share their experiences working or studying with an individual. We’ve found that it’s important to offer some type of musical interlude at events like this, and often that music is the accompaniment to a slide show compiled with the assistance of the family. 

After the music and slideshow we open the program up to anyone else who was not on the program and would like to offer remarks. Some share hilarious stories. Others shed tears and can barely get a word out. But it’s important for people to have an opportunity to share.

And that’s really what these events are for. The director of our university counseling center likes to remind us how important memorial services are for a campus community. Ceremonies like funerals and memorials are an important part of the grief process for many people. They allow a community to formally say goodbye. They provide us with an opportunity to be together, support one another. Hug each other while we cry. They're also an opportunity to celebrate a life well-lived and the great blessing it is to journey through life with each other.         

I have noticed something at these services. When the speakers come to the front, they identify themselves not simply as department colleagues or fellow researchers in a lab, but as friends. And their remarks may offer a sentence or two about one’s “influence on the field,” “contributions as a scholar” or “excellence in the classroom” but almost to a person, the words offered at memorial services are stories about and testimonies to the character of the individual being memorialized that day. While intellect and professional accomplishments are respected and certainly acknowledged, this is not what those who rise to speak hold on to. If one’s C.V. is the predominant subject matter at one’s memorial service, then something went terribly wrong along the way.

It seems that the legacies that we leave as scholars and as higher education professionals are threefold. We of course will leave behind professional and scholarly contributions in the form of texts and articles written, courses taught, research opportunities, or programs that left deep impressions on our students, as well as faithful work in the service of the institutions that we serve. 

Along with our professional and scholarly one, it turns out that we also leave a legacy established by our character. The way we treat our colleagues and coworkers seems to be just as if not more important than the academic and professional work that we offer. Junior colleagues often recall in memoriam how they were recruited to a place, or mentored during their first semesters. They remember how they were treated during their tenure review or in other potentially stressful moments in their career. The department staff will often speak to the simple courtesies and daily decency of an individual. This is what is most talked about at memorials.

Sometimes, before I return to the podium to close the service a member of the family rises and asks to say a few brief words. With tear-soaked faces that express gratitude for the kind stories – many of which they had never heard – about their husband, wife, partner, or parent. They then share a facet of the individual that most of us knew little of. They talk about the fun-loving parent who read stories to them as a child and coached their little league team. Or the gentle grandparent who spoiled their little grandkids. We hear about the quirky hobbies that occupied their time away from the lab or office. We hear about someone who was never called “Doctor” or “Professor” at home, but instead “Honey,” “Mommy,” or “Pop-Pop."

After the service ends some of us dare to imagine what our own memorial service will someday be like.

It is a grim thought that probably shouldn’t be dwelled on too long, but these moments of reflection challenge us to consider just how we will be remembered. What will our colleagues say about us? Will they say that we were kind and supportive? Will they be proud to have worked with us? Will our former students point to us and say that we recognized gifts in them and affirmed them in a meaningful way?

And will our kids and partners stand at our services and smile at our colleagues? Or will they remain seated with resentment toward a job that made their parents miss so much of their lives?

Our legacy should never be the motivation for our work. Worrying about our image can lead to poor decision-making, a preoccupation with oneself, and a lack of courage. Yet it is healthy, I think, from time to time to consider how we are treating those around us. The ripples of our love and kindness will carry on long after our books are out of print and long after our seasons in higher education have passed.

Rev. Charles L. Howard is university chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Essay on the problems with academic specialization

In what sense does branching from your original field come with a punishment? Does the academy really want intellectual curiosity?

I am a historian, and I have published in Asian, Pacific, urban and American history. I don’t really consider myself an Asianist of the hardcore variety, (my Mandarin is rusty and my Malay limited), and for all that World History is touted, hiring in that area is often more the old-style “Empire” (“Britain and the World,” “France and the World,” “Iberian Empires” or sometimes “America in the World” which as far as I can tell is the new way of saying diplomatic history).

But unfortunately the academic world still has a need to pigeonhole us. A department will be hiring someone to teach (for instance), colonial North America, or Modern Germany. So obviously they want someone with training in that area. (Never mind that fact that many of us, once in a job, will end up teaching things that are a long way from our specialization.)

Back while I was still at the University of Cambridge in 2007, Simon Schama published a book about the transatlantic slave trade. At a conference, one of the speakers held up the book, slapped it, and said, “How could he write this? He’s an expert on 17th-century Holland!” I thought my Ph.D. was a license to go anywhere in history. Hearing that comment, I wondered whether I had made a huge mistake.

My Ph.D. topic was stumbled into, rather a compromise based on source availability and timing. I am proud of the project (and the book it became), but it’s not an area I wish to pursue further. So I work on different things. Fortunately, I’m in a department now where they don’t seem to mind what I research, as long as I’m publishing. But to grant agencies, I think I look a bit flaky.

And certainly to people like that conference speaker, I present an odd figure. I assumed that my training in history (in Susan Stryker’s words, a “black belt in looking shit up”) meant I could turn those skills to any period of history (language issues notwithstanding). I never realized I would be shackled to my Ph.D. topic for the rest of my life (perhaps because the historians I most admired, like Schama, are those who had displayed broad intellectual curiosity and turned their focus on widely divergent regions and periods).

In terms of history outside of the academy, the general public wants broad declarative histories. Books on the theme of “The X that changed the world” are common (even histories of apparently small things have to be on the grand stage). Meanwhile in academe our focus remains narrow. There was once a time when academic historians wrote broad narratives for dissertations. Then we turned to ever smaller elements of history, to be examined to a microscopic level. David Armitage and Jo Guldi have suggested we may be returning to the longue duree in academic works, but it may be slow in coming.

I still believe that the training of a doctoral program should allow us to use those skills anywhere, allowing for the time required to get up to speed on the scholarship in a new field. After all, if I could do that in three years as a fresh graduate student, I should be able to do it again now (and probably quicker since I’ve done it before). It disturbs me that there are people who believe our ability to learn and grow as scholars should end the second we are handed our Ph.D.s (with our future publications just being further iterations of the same subject as our dissertation).

With the growing need for Ph.D.s to consider careers outside the academy, a broader perspective is useful -- nonprofits, think tanks and museums want broad skills and flexibility, not narrow interests. This means also having open-minded professors -- open to careers outside academe, and open to different fields.

 

Katrina Gulliver is a lecturer in history at the University of New South Wales. You can find her most of the time on Twitter @katrinagulliver.

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U. Wisconsin-Madison faculty approves an anti-bullying policy

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While college leaders elsewhere who recently pushed civility faced a backlash, U. of Wisconsin Madison faculty approves policy against bullying.

New book focuses on challenges of being a father in academe

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New book seeks to shine light on the challenges dads face while trying to balance their home and work lives.

Essay on why academics feel overworked

Philip Guo says that the nature of academic work is different from other models, and requires new professors to learn to say no.

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Introduction of new career advice column for minority academics

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Kerry Ann Rockquemore answers the questions she most often receives from minority scholars launching their careers.

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Kerry Ann Rockquemore
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Should faculty members have to take out their own trash?

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Should faculty members have to remove their garbage from their offices? West Virginia U. says they should (to promote recycling)

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