Scicurious and I are leading the “Sex, gender and controversy: writing to educate, writing to titillate” session on Thursday (at 2:45pm, room 1cd) at Science Online 2012. Despite the fact that the discussion at #scio12 will only be an hour long, we managed to fill a two hour Skype conversation with our thoughts and ideas about the panel earlier this month. I want to share some of our thoughts on the broader perspective we are taking on our session. Sci has shared her origin story over at her digs, which will give you a sense of our introductory remarks and why we care about this topic.
Agency and Institution in Three Acts. Act I: Within yourself
This is not a session on the science of sex, on being sexy while doing science, or on being sciency while having sex. Sci and I aren’t particularly excited by the idea of talking about any of those things, at least in a #scio12 session. What we want to talk about is the tension writing about this topic creates between the two major systems of our lives: our agency as individuals, and the institutions we operate around and within. Writing within this tension is where real risk-taking, exciting writing happens, and we want to help our fellow discussants figure out what this means for their own blogging.
For me, it’s the juxtaposition of my inherent agency as a tenure-track professor with academic freedom who can do whatever she wants for a research program* with institutional pressures of the various contexts in which I work: American culture, Polish culture (since I do my fieldwork in Poland), my university, my discipline. I have one of the most amazing, agency-filled jobs, where I get to decide where and when I work more than many other people I know. Yet I continually bump up against institutional oppressions, and observe the same in many of my peers.
As someone who is gendered female, people have long assumed that my academic interests must naturally tend toward ladybusiness: is that lifelong pressure why I study women’s reproductive ecology, or is it that I just don’t find the dudes that interesting since they aren’t the ones who make the babies? I imagine it’s a hefty portion of both. As a woman, I choose to study women and I understand the drives and assumptions that underlie this, that I didn’t make this choice in a vacuum but in the context of my personal agency and the world I’ve grown up in. I know I may be taken less seriously to do research on something gendered female, and that I may be taken more seriously as a female academic if I did research on something more obviously gendered male. But I also know the safety of women, and the risks where they are fewer of them.
This is a conversation I’ve had among other academics countless times: that this push by others towards particular topics, their own natural tendencies which may agree or disagree with that push, and their desires to subvert assumptions all influenced their topic of study. I know women who don’t study anything to do with women to be taken more seriously, and I know women who study women because it’s the only thing anyone would believe they wanted to study so, of their several projects, it’s all they could get funding for. Queer folk are often assumed to have interests only in queer topics. Several grad student friends of mine over the years have been directly told by their advisors that they should study their own ethnicity. Our agency as scientists is continually subverted by broader assumptions that who we are as people dictate our scientific interests.
Act II: Within your science
This, I think, is why I find the idea of bias in women’s health so interesting. Agency and institutional pressures are constantly at war within me, and so I seek out this tension in my own discipline. On the one hand, you have the scientific method, a nearly perfect form of agency that allows one to ask and test questions about the world in which we live. On the other hand, you have the oppressions and biases that permeate those who conduct science. Sometimes the outcome is pretty bad.
Writing about this tension is risky, but it also has the potential for an enormous payoff in terms of the quality of the final product. What were some of the most popular blog posts after #scio11? The ones that came out of the women in scienceblogging panel. These posts exposed many to the roiling mix of fear and courage many women and people from other underrepresented groups feel in the pit of our bellies every single day. Other posts that I’ve seen really hit a nerve involve tensions between different hypotheses, different interpretations of evidence, or the testing of a long-held assumption.
We are drawn to tension, to controversy, to provocation. Some want to engage, some to pitch a fit, and some to eat popcorn and watch. And a lot more people come when the science we write about is about the intersection or opposition of agency and institution because of that natural tension. The more people who come, the more people with a little more science in their day.
Act III: Within your writing
Here is a final way to think about these two concepts. As science bloggers, we have ultimate agency: even when we write for a network we usually have full editorial control. We can be whoever we want online, write about whatever we want.
But here is a place where institution – as culture, biology, our training or our relationships – can bring a healthy kind of unease to our writing. The kinds of people we choose to be are, as a whole, decent people. And decent people can be provocative, but they don’t lie on purpose. Decent people may spin wild theories, but not without qualifiers and evidence. Decent people find the controversy, but the controversy doesn’t define them.
And that is the core of the conversation Sci and I had the other day: with great power comes great responsibility. I credit Sci the most for first pointing out, understanding and personifying this last point. If we are the ones who have decided to communicate science, to break it down for our audience, to share it, or to push its boundaries, we need to be responsible. Our posts may be passed around on Facebook or Twitter, show up on Boing Boing or Reddit, and as a result be the only post someone reads on a given topic. Do we fan the flames of someone’s prejudice? Indulge our worst ideas? Write purely for pageviews?
So on Thursday, this is what we will talk about in our session: finding the tension in ourselves, our science and our writing. Delighting in the controversy, thrilling from the risk, but never forgetting our responsibility to the readers on the other side of our screen.
*This is of course within the confines of what it takes to get tenure and given the horrible funding situation which makes it hard to get any science done in the first place. Of course my job isn’t perfect. But that’s a topic for another post.