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Reflections on Status and STATUS


By William C. Keel

June 2000

Professor William C. Keel was educated at Vanderbilt and UCSC and held postdoc positions at KPNO and Leiden. He has been at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa since 1987. Since 1992 he has
mentored five “Research Experience for Undergraduates” students, three of whom are women (with his first being STATUS co-editor, Lisa Frattare). The meeting of NSF REU mentors he refers to below
occurred at the AAS meeting in January 1994; it included a more or less serious discussion of the propriety of faculty and students of opposite sexes observing together at remote sites.

ARECENT E-MAIL message from Lisa Frattare finally pulled me into typing up some thoughts I'd had
since seeing the last issue of STATUS, and some of which I'd talked about with her. They may
not be quite suitable for publication, but may contain some grains useful for thought. The timing
was interesting — she sent some copies of STATUS along with a bunch of pictures I plan to
give away at an HST 10th-anniversary shindig, and I read it the same day that our faculty fellowship
group had a speaker from the communications department who addressed feminism and
Christianity (and her message was indeed more than “go read Deborah Tannen and then come
back”). But I digress. In astronomy, a view from a different direction can be very enlightening, so
perhaps the same thing applies here.


Howard Georgi's article (from the June 1999 issue of STATUS) was both interesting and tantalizing.
Several times he seemed on the verge of enunciating a crucial insight and then backed
away. Maybe that means there's all that much more to do simply in formulating the issues clearly
enough. Or maybe I'm so far out of it that I missed them in a perfectly adequate expression.


In a fascinating example of interdisciplinary luck, I found much to learn in the article on soccer
coaching (from the January 2000 issue of STATUS). In hindsight, I can see just these issues
of men and women responding differently to various teaching/coaching styles explaining some
hitherto puzzling things I've seen in small lab classes. Typically, I see students form groups of
three, with one doing 3/4 of the activity, a second doing 1/4, and the third — all too often the
only woman in the group — apparently disconnected and just writing it all down. Maybe I'm
starting to get the tools to mix things up a bit.

Indeed, most academic departments don't seem all that friendly to family issues, period. A
previous department chairman here got pretty ticked that I didn't want to serve on a tenure
committee that would meet intensely for a 3- week period that included the due date for one
of our children, finally asking “Look, is she having the baby, or are you?” The same guy was
also snitty about my not wanting an 8 a.m. class because of the timing with regard to getting kids
to school (7:55 starting bell), when we both knew that there were faculty with no such constraints,
who refuse such classes simply because they don't like getting out of bed that early. We
have a new chairman now, who has an 8th-grader, and somehow he seems to remember what it's
like much better.


Ah, haven't we all had it professionally and personally with those grunts who have no life
outside their work? That was, of course, the proper behavior that most grad schools tried to
socialize us to, probably because only with such monomania could most of us stick with it to finish
a degree and get a first job. Truth in advertising compels me to admit that I probably didn't
acquire a life until well into my first postdoc. There's no denying that it's a professionally fruitful
way to work. We cannot compete with folks who put 16-hour days in for decades. It's just
frustrating when they insist that everyone else should do so as well. At least, since there's widespread
anecdotal evidence that female grad students and postdocs are more likely to have genuine
lives, a little more diversity in the field could be good for everybody. Well, all right, everybody
except (names deleted on advice of counsel).


I was initially taken aback that the NSF REU program dealt with the issue of who should go
observing with whom, but maybe on second thought I shouldn't have been. I know men who
make a point of honoring their marriage commitment by never being alone with another
woman in any possibly compromising or tempting situation. If one's professional situation
allows it, this is to my mind a perfectly defensible view. However, in the case of an observer
who mentors fledgling observers, doing so would result in a de facto disadvantage to some. (Hmm, I do note that one of the editors of STATUS was one of only two female student
I’ve ever had the occasion to take observing … Coincidence? You tell me.) There's obviously a
lot of spoken and unspoken culture here. At some institutions, male faculty members have a
fear (factually justified or not) of even the indirect accusation of impropriety, feeling that the
mere innuendo could be career-limiting. And it's been common advice for longer than I've
been in the business that male faculty should never be behind closed doors with female students
for the same reason. (So why did I get the slam-the-door-and-undergo-life-crisis example?
OK, that was just one, and the only difference in gender is that male students seem to be
more likely to come to my house instead of my office to do this).


There's a related issue that we see constantly in faculty meetings — just what is graduate
training in the sciences for? We have some faculty committed to the idea that there are a Few
Chosen, and our job is to identify them and weed out the rest. The notion that there are students
who would become quite successful in technical careers (yea, even Physics itself) with
some deliberate nurturing at this stage found fertile soil in some minds, but fell on stony
ground in others. Perhaps the purely pragmatic observation that the state commission on higher
education is breathing down our necks about graduating enough students to remain academically
viable (i.e., we have an immediate need not to be shut down) will be an unwitting force
for change here.


Just some musings from a middle-aged southern white male.

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