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Context and Variation

Context and Variation

Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.

Which came first, rewarding outreach or doing it? On chickens, eggs, and overworked scientists

[caption id="attachment_468" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Which came first, the chicken or the egg? You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet... oh, forget it. I'm out of cliches. By Public Domain Photos."]Which came first, the chicken or the egg? You have to break a few eggs to bake a cake... oh, forget it. I'm out of cliches.[/caption]

Scicurious recently identified exactly where the whole “all scientists need to get off their butts and do outreach” meme sticks in my craw: not only are we overworked, but these behaviors go unrewarded. And in what is so far a very thoughtful comment thread, Katie PhD made the point that this is a chicken and egg problem: we need people to step forward and do outreach, but we also need to make it worth their while… which will only be recognized and understood when more people do outreach. While there are more and more scientists engaging in outreach right now, the majority of the folks doing outreach – at least blog outreach, relevant as this is a blog – are grad students, postdocs, or junior faculty (of course we have some old people grand mentors as well). Danielle Lee suggested that we junior folks are just tired of waiting for the old folks to come around:

“We're tired of the status quo that can feel unfair, unwelcoming and unappreciative of younger/creative/innovative/inventive talent. Science academia is wanting/expecting each of us to be perfectly adept at doing EVERYTHING perfectly...well everything but having a personal life. And being good Generation X/Y-ers that we are, we're not buying that crap.

“It's exhausting and unfair and isn't getting us/society anywhere. People are still getting left out and excluded from science and new opportunities. It's not scientists’ fault. We know that; but it is the culture of science's fault and I sense a culture shift on the horizon.…”

The thinking that I do in this space is incredibly valuable to my development as a scholar, puts me in conversation with anthropologists I may never have otherwise met, and communicates science to a broader audience. Two of my blog posts are in science writing anthologies, a third turned into a manuscript that turned into a journal article that will be out in September, a fourth is being turned into a manuscript over the next few weeks to submit to another peer-reviewed journal. I love the direction my research is going in and the ways in which the mentorship and support I receive among this community bolsters me.

But I’m tired. I share the exhaustion and consternation felt by Sci, Danielle, and others, even while I also share the drive to engage more scientists in outreach. As regular readers may remember, this past year was my third year review for my tenure-track position at the University of Illinois. And it went well. But I do need to, in the words of my committee, “re-budget my time” towards traditional research publications to build the strongest possible case for tenure. I need to write more grants. I need to publish more, and not in the hit-publish-in-Wordpress sort of way.

There was a silver lining. My third year review letter contained language that agreed that my blog constitutes a kind of non-traditional, peer-reviewed writing. The letter applauded my efforts in outreach, over and over again. And so while my next year on the tenure track will surely be focused on my trying to find balance between research, teaching and outreach efforts, I now have written insurance from higher ups at my university that my outreach is considered valuable and aids my path to tenure.

What’s more, in the last year or two the tenure document at the University of Illinois, called Communication Number 9, has been modified to include a public engagement section. This means that our degree of public engagement will be evaluated in the tenure process, alongside our other scholarly efforts. And I think we know that if something counts for tenure, the university values it, and more faculty are going to start doing it.

A critical view of this shift might include the observation that outreach is yet another professional activity for which faculty are not trained, nor are they compensated. This shift did not include an increase in the number of hours in the day, nor a decrease in research or teaching expectations, and so finding time for all of these activities remains a challenge. And at many institutions, an excellent teaching or outreach record will never trump a moderate research record. A critical view of this shift, then, might lead to putting the new tenure requirements through a shredder, or perhaps using it as kindling in one’s wood stove. Of course, I am not saying that I look at these requirements from that particular perspective, oh no. But I am also not saying that these changes particularly ease my own concerns, and we need to push for clearer mentorship and instruction on how to apportion our time and energy rather than accept our job increasing in hours.

It’s still on us, then, to do what we think is right, what fits with our priorities, what makes us happy, and what is most consistent with our view of scholarship. It’s possible that even with the excellent, constructive mentoring I have started to receive from my senior colleagues my “re-budgeting” efforts over the next few years will not be considered substantial enough. I’m not actually worried, yet it’s always possible. But if I haven’t convinced my colleagues by that time that my path is a worthy one, I have made and refined the tools I need to carve out a path somewhere else, and that’s enough for me to keep chipping away at this one right now.

Last year I attended the Purdue Conference for Pre-Tenure Women, and it forced me to acknowledge my impostor syndrome, to confront my fears about radical scholarship, and to take myself seriously enough to have a real plan for tenure (they’ve scheduled next year’s, and yes, you need to go – talk to your department head about at least covering registration if not travel, and tell them I said they are a jerk if they don’t help you out). Go back to that post and read it again. Bring your whole self to your job, have a plan, be a radical. Don’t wait for someone else to carve a path you can follow – you have peer mentors who are carving paths and are just as confused as you are. Take comfort and strength from them. I have also found senior allies by continuing to do my job the way I think it should be done and by being very, very lucky. They provide an added boost when my junior colleagues and I are looking around helplessly for answers.

I take the calls to redefine our work lives from Sci, Danielle, and many others very seriously. Public outreach isn’t about adding more hours to your job. It’s about redefining the hours you have and pushing others to recognize the value you bring to your field – even my own university understands this, perhaps leads on this, given the “re-budgeting” language they used in my third year review. A twenty-first century academic is going to have to cause some discomfort to move twentieth century academia along, and true to our science, I think we can provide empirical evidence of the worth of our paths.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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