Bias against fields: every single one of us could make a difference

I am trying to figure out what each of us – every single one of us – could do to make our field more diverse. My last posts focused on mechanisms that seem to be at work in personnel decisions and evaluations at every level: we exaggerate the achievements of some people, but not others, and we overlook the shortcomings of some people, but not others. That’s one way of shutting people out.

Here I want to reflect on biases that affect fields of investigation. Why is it that my own department only has a single person who is a specialist on variation? Why is it that we never tell ourselves that we might need a second specialist in that area? Could that ever be a priority? Why do we consider some areas essential, but not others? Why is it that SULA (Semantics of Underrepresented Languages in the Americas) has had so many participants from underrepresented groups from the very start? What’s wrong with a department, a conference, a journal, or an undergraduate or graduate program that puts its emphasis on the documentation and investigation of underrepresented languages and dialects (Swarthmore College does this, for example)? Is it true that you can’t do, or learn how to do, cutting edge theoretical work while working on an underrepresented language? Could we make the group of linguists more diverse by putting more emphasis on work on underrepresented languages? Placing low priority on a whole field of investigation is another way of shutting people out. That’s another area where every single one of us could make a difference. What’s holding us back?

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Fewer burdens and more support for early career researchers

Source: Nature, October 26

” ‘Things are not what they used to be.’ How often those in the older generation use this phrase to scold the morals, attitudes and behaviour of younger rivals. And yet, how often do the same people, often in positions of power and responsibility, deny the changes in circumstance that newer generations complain about with justification. So, let’s be clear: young scientists today face a harsher, more competitive, stricter, more dispiriting workplace than their bosses and senior colleagues did at the same stages of their own careers. Things are simply not the same as they were back in the day. They are more difficult. In a special issueNature examines the problems and the possible fixes.”

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Bias in personnel decisions: every single one of us could make a difference

Michel DeGraff recently drew my attention to a provocative article by Marybeth Gasman in the Washington Post (“An Ivy League professor on why colleges don’t hire more faculty of color”). The most thought-provoking message I took away from reading the article was that we should watch ourselves, both when we exaggerate achievements, but also when we overlook flaws and blemishes and when we make exceptions and excuses. We exaggerate the achievements of certain people, but not others. And we overlook or excuse the flaws of certain people, but not others. I have seen this mechanism at work (with various kinds of biases, including race, gender, national origin) in personnel actions for hiring, renewals, tenure, promotion, awards, disciplinary measures or annual evaluations of colleagues, but also when we assess the achievements and problems of our students. These are the kinds of situations that are a routine part of our professional lives. These are also the kinds of situations where every single one of us could make a difference. What’s holding us back?

Excerpt from follow-up article by Marybeth Gasman in the Washington Post: “I received more than 6,000 emails after my essay about diversity in faculty hiring was published in the Hechinger Report and The Washington Post. Most were from people of color telling me their stories, many of them gut-wrenching and sad. One African American woman wrote, “despite having terrific credentials and applying for over 200 faculty positions, I have been denied for a faculty position over and over, making me wonder if pursuing a PhD was worth it. … I wonder if I should discourage other African Americans from doing so.” People told me my essay made them cry.”

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Helen Quinn: Science Standards for the next generation

From Quanta Magazine

She recalled how a high school teacher encouraged her to become a mathematician, telling her, “Because you’re so lazy, you will never solve a problem the hard way. You always have to figure out a clever way.” Here is a link to the Next Generation Science Standards that Quinn helped develop. It might be a nice homework exercise for us in a cognitive science discipline to think about which of our insights we would dare to offer as part of a regular science curriculum. Do we have enough solid knowledge to give to the next generation?

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The many shades of European postdoc funding

That’s the title of a recent article in Science. It points to a report by Science Europe that has just been released.

“The report covers about 100 funding schemes offered by Science Europe member organizations in 23 European countries and by the European Commission, the European Research Council, and the European Molecular Biology Organization. Although not all relevant funding bodies are represented in the survey, and research institutions—many of which directly support young researchers—are largely absent, the report gives a feel for the wide variety of funding programs that are available” (Science).  

The sheer number of postdoctoral opportunities in Europe may feel like a way out from the dearth of postdoctoral positions in the US, in particular in fields like Linguistics. But European postdocs can easily become dead ends: the holders of postdoctoral positions may not have the know-how and mentoring support for climbing the local academic ladders, and a return to the US usually is impossible after a few years. There is very little experience with mentoring postdocs in fields like Linguistics: More often than not, postdocs have to satisfy certain needs of an institution (teaching classes, lending their expertise to a particular project that is not theirs), but are otherwise left to their own devices. There may be no way forward when the postdoc runs out: “What postdocs often deplore is the lack of a longer-term career perspective”(from the Science Europe report, p. 22).

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Find your most interesting question

Nicola Spaldin

From Science, 3 July 2015. Video

“Frighteningly, I have reached the stage in my career when young people often ask me for advice. My safe and sensible side tells me to pass along the same advice I received: Make a solid contribution to an established field and publish a lot to become known and respected by your community. Save the high-risk stuff until after tenure. But, deep down, I hope young scientists—you—will choose not to follow that advice. I hope instead you will find the question that for you is the most interesting in the world, go after its answer with all your youthful passion, and pioneer your own science revolution.”

From Physics Central: “Prof. Spaldin spends her time researching how to get materials to do multiple tasks. She uses calculations and simulations to design materials that combine more than one function. “Basic laws say this property can’t coexist with this property and we try to get around that,” she said. For example, “In your laptop, a semiconductor material processes the information and a magnetic material stores the information. If we could process and store in the same piece of stuff, we could make your computer smaller, lighter and able to use less power.” Her research continues to have real implications in technology as iPods shrink and PCs become the size of notepads.”

I was asked why I am featuring a theoretical materials scientist in my SEMANTICS notebook. One reason is that I love her career advice. The other reason is that I find it very useful for my own work to take glimpses into other disciplines. The way Spaldin uses computational modeling to find ways of combining apparently incompatible properties of materials is truly fascinating and inspiring. Incidentally, the bust Spaldin is almost hiding behind in the picture above (taken from her website) is the bust of Robert Schumann. Why should a theoretical materials scientist portray herself as peeking out from behind a bust of Robert Schumann? 

What I enjoyed most during my year as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute was the company of scholars and artists from many different fields. Hearing about their work and trying to understand what makes them tick inspired my own work. I have no idea why and how, but it did. I am using my notebook to hold on to that spirit.  

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On training graduate students

Here is some good advice (and a book recommendation) for PhD students and advisors of PhD students by Sundar Christopher. The book targets the graduate student experience in the US, where students often enter PhD programs right after College. Several European institutions have developed attractive PhD programs that combine the best features of the American system, which places a lot of emphasis on training, and the traditional European system, which places a lot of emphasis on independence. Those programs are ‘apprentice-style’: they include formalized training components, but also allow students to be contributing researchers from the very start. The entrance requirement is usually an MA, which means that students are already weaned off textbooks by the time they begin their PhD. They are ready and eager to see themselves as researchers. I myself grew up in the old-style European system, which had no formalized training for PhD students. By sheer luck, I was apprenticed by the best possible teachers you could imagine and confronted with the best research programs in formal semantics at the time.

When I moved to the US, the American, ‘school-like’, system of graduate student education was new to me. To fit in, I must have overdone it at the beginning of my UMass career. One day, Barbara Partee invited me for dinner at her house together with Terry Parsons, who was visiting. I don’t remember much about that evening except for one thing that stuck in my mind. Barbara told both of us that we ‘overtaught’ our graduate students, that we ‘overprepared’ our graduate classes, and that we were too ‘controlling’ of the discourse in the class room. I took it to heart. I learned (I hope) to treat even the youngest graduate students as researchers who need guidance and help, not so much with textbook material, which they can easily absorb on their own, but with groping in the dark, seeking out their own challenges, getting used to unknown terrain, and feeling comfortable about asking probing questions. I realized that teaching PhD students ‘by the book’ (even if it’s your own) is very easy to do (no preparation required), but it is also a sure recipe for failure in the long run. Students who are taught by the book won’t be ready to do original work by the time they have to write their qualifying papers. They will remain dependent for too long. 

When I visited the University of Maryland during NASSLLI last year, I got to know some of the graduate students there. I saw that even first year semantics students were already working on their own original research projects. It’s not that they weren’t taking any classes. They were, but they were at the same time contributing members of research groups. This is also the way PhD students are trained in the Berlin School of Mind and Brain or at ILLC in Amsterdam. The PhD students in all three of those programs are enthusiastic and self-confident scholars who are deeply immersed in their research, mentored by specialists in their field, as well as by a Graduate Program Director. Maryland has a post-baccalaureate program providing a bridge between College and Graduate School. The Berlin and Amsterdam programs have associated MA programs that offer introductory and more specialized graduate-level classes, as well as ‘methods’ classes. In addition, there are workshops and mini-courses targeting PhD students. I think programs like these might be the future of graduate education in the Cognitive Sciences, including linguistics. The time of the ’60s-style PhD program in linguistics that was so successful in the US may be over. Training in linguistics is bound to become more like training in the sciences. 

Yale University has an interesting combined PhD program in Philosophy and Psychology. Since Zoltan Szabo, Jason Stanley, and Larry Horn are members of the Philosophy faculty at Yale, the program offers the intriguing possibility of PhD-level training in formal semantics and pragmatics in combination with both philosophy and psychology. Rather than acquiring breadth and well-roundedness within a Linguistics program by taking classes in, say, Phonetics or Phonology, semantics graduate students at Yale can acquire a very different kind of breadth via a formal connection with the departments of Philosophy or Psychology. Jonathan Phillips‘ profile on his website is a good example of a specialization in Formal Semantics in the context of Philosophy and Psychology. The Yale program requires students to affiliate with one ‘home department’. This is important because  jobs are still mostly allotted following traditional departmental lines. 

PhD students also have to think about what is ahead of them. Here is a link to a very useful book about preparing students for life after the PhD: “A PhD is not enough” by Peter Feibelman.

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The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar

Helen Vendler: The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar. Essays on Poets and Poetry. Harvard University Press. 2015. Review in today’s Times Higher Education.

“My first puzzle as an adolescent was how could one know, if one had never seen a ballet before, that one dancer just hadn’t done a certain movement adequately? How could one perceive that something was wrong in the phrasing of a musical moment, if one had never heard that aria before? The presence of an invisible contour of the perfect inhabiting the mind and testing all performances against itself was amazing to me.” Helen Vendler

“In the end, Vendler majored in chemistry, and then won a Fulbright scholarship to study mathematics in Belgium. While there, she obtained permission to study English literature instead […]. After an unsuccessful application to Harvard for graduate study, she prepared for a second attempt by taking six courses in English a term at Boston University, and was finally admitted to Harvard’s PhD programme. When she arrived to register, the chairman of the department told her, “You know we don’t want you here, Miss Hennessy: we don’t want any women here.” She was shaken, but continued.” Elizabeth Greene, from the review.

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