Seats at the Table

As I continue to experience a uniquely quiet and thought-provoking summer, I find myself able to spend more time cooking, doing home stewardship, and engaging in other “domestic research”.  Does this herb go with this meat, or this type of cheese?  Which type of battery is best for my classic sports car?  How can I get those stains out of the ceiling from where the roof leaked a few years ago?  What is my best sleep schedule?  Let’s set up some research, and collect some data!

Research, I often tell the students in the lab, is an act of communication and documentation.  The more unique or non-standard the research, I explain, the more the burden falls on the researcher as writer (rather than the audience) to understand the context and implications (and even relevance) of the research.  I sometimes hear complaints about that burden: “That’s not fair!”  (I will not digress too much on my feelings about “fairness” in this sense.  No, it’s not maximally convenient to the writer.  Actually, it’s much harder, and sometimes relegates work to being ignored, or non-influential, or unappreciated, or even flat-out rejected.  And sometimes, that is simply unjust.  But pointing out that something is inconvenient, or inequitable, or unbalanced, or unjust doesn’t mean that it’s not true.) 

Over the past few weeks, I have had lots of opportunities to think about professional colleagues of mine.  It might be a LinkedIn update, or a work-related email, or a professional society web update, or any of the various ways that academics engage with their professional discipline and their personal or research networks.  Of course, we’re all busy, so I don’t mean to say that I am in active, daily interactions with any of them, let alone all of them.  However, that’s not the point.  For any subset of them, there can be a variety of events or projects that cause me to interact with or at least consider “Hey, what’s xyz up to these days?”  Some folks have been moving around, so it may take me a moment to find out about where they are right now, or what they might be working on in research or campus administration.  So, I may do a search on Mark, or Gary, or Mike, or Alec, or Steve.  I may remember a past research project or see a news story, so I want to follow up on Harriet, or Stephanie, or Tonya, or Pamela.  Normally, those of us in the university world think nothing unusual for academics to do that sort of thing.  If you include me in the list, that’s a group of 10 folks.  Not even that hard for a dinner reservation at a restaurant (well, when we get back to having dinner at a restaurant, but that’s another discussion for another day), if you could get us all together in between our busy schedules.  We’re not all in the same discipline, after all, nor are we limited in our work obligations.  That’s what happens when one becomes a full professor in engineering. 

By the way, the NSF likes to collect and analyze data, so when several close friends of mine (and my daughter, over some French toast during a visit in Madison) challenged me to do some thought experiments, it was easy to go to the Survey of Earned Doctorates.   One of the original versions of the question involved how well most people know about the world of academic faculty, particularly at research universities.  Well, most of the people I spend time with know… because that’s who I spend a lot of my time with, and besides, anyone who knows me hears about what I do.  But that’s not really a representative sample of the world, is it?  (In fact, that is exactly the sort of example I’d use to say, “that’s not systematic observation!” in a stats or human factors class.)  But for the rest of the world, the idea is kind of abstract and remote, and outside of their experience.  So, all 10 of us being full professors in engineering departments (when we’re not being department, college, or campus-level administrators) would make us part of a group of about 11,600 folks. 

However, I am also intentionally telling this story in a particular way, to build up to a particular punch line for dramatic effect.  (I admit: I like doing that.) Actually, there is nothing untrue, or misleading, or even tricky about the story.  I’m not picking folks that I have only seen on TV or in a movie; I’ve interacted with some of these folks this year, either on Zoom or in email or in person.  But if you did see us all in a restaurant, sitting and talking about research budgets, or faculty senate actions, or the challenges of supervising too many graduate students with too little time, those topics would not necessarily catch your attention first, or surprise you the most. 

We’re all Black.

Why is that important?  Of those 11,600 or so engineering full professors, maybe 250 of them are Black males.  Only about 50 are Black females[1].  (A male-female faculty ratio of 5:1 is not actually that surprising in engineering, so having the table be close to gender parity would be a surprise if you knew it was engineering faculty.)  That’s not very many people.  And to be honest, if I were asked “what can these people do to increase STEM diversity?” my answer would be fairly simple.

Exist.  Do your work

(This is my own personal version. Others may reference a quote, such as “Do what you can, where you are”. Versions of this are attributed to Arthur Ashe, or Teddy Roosevelt (who attributed it to Bill Widener).

I admit that I am not the sort of person who grabs a bullhorn to lead a crowd in an activist demonstration on any topic.  (The only times I’ve used a megaphone or mic to stir up a group would be as a coxswain for a rowing team, or as a host / MC for a STEM-related research conference or public outreach event.)  But I have come to a growing recognition over the years that just standing there and speaking in my own voice, in front of a class or at the conference or as host of the event, can be a very powerful statement and surprising communication.  As my daughter had pointed out, if I retired tomorrow, I would be able to say that I made a difference and have left a legacy.  But I’m not likely to retire tomorrow.  What is changing is the sense of what work I will choose to do, and on whose terms.  That is actually fairly new for me, to decide to pick my own terms and communicate my own messages, in my own way, in my own time.  I’m not even completely sure what messages I will be choosing to communicate (including this one). I do recognize that the burden is on me to make the message as clear and understandable as possible.   However, I am no longer assuming that, when other people don’t get or believe the message, that it must be my fault.  Just letting go of that may be a key to doing my best job in answering my own question.  What is my work?  Not for you, or him, or her.  What am I best suited for as me, in the world that is, even if I wish to design for the world that is not?

Actually, that’s a good question for everyone to ask, and not be afraid of finding a new answer.


[1] (These numbers come from NSF Table 9-25, from 2017.)