Category Archives: Academic Culture

The Personal and The Professional

I’m (as usual) very late to the party on the whole Scientific American masterclass on how not to deal with sexual harassment, but here’s the gist of the (first) situation:

  • Dr. Danielle Lee has been blogging at Scientific American for 2 years. Her research is in ecology and evolutionary biology, and she does a lot of excellent outreach work to the general public and especially underserved groups; she’s highly regarded for both of these.
  • She got an email last week asking if she would contribute to a site, she asked the terms of the request (including, among other things, if it was a paid gig), and then professionally declined. In response, the other person asked “are you an urban scientist, or an urban whore?” I’ll give you a moment to pick your jaw up off the ground — it can take a minute to jiggle it back into the joint properly.
  • She turns around and publishes a post on her blog at SA that not only clearly lays out not only why this is totally unacceptable, unprofessional, and breathtakingly rude, but also talks about it in terms of “your work is valuable — don’t let someone else dictate the terms you work on.” Academia has a lot of endemic and unresolved labour and sexism issues, and even outside of the context of this one incident, that is an important point to make. She handled this very professionally, I thought, and in a way to underscored how while this is an isolated incident, it exists within a larger context.
  • SA then took her post down without contacting her, later citing in a very hand wavy way that SA publishes on science, not on personal matters. The later justification was that they were worried that the site that contacted Dr. Lee would lawyer up, and until they had proof that she wasn’t making it up, they wanted to cover their butts. Note that these are totally incongruent explanations, and the second implies that Dr. Lee would potentially fabricate sexual harassment. Faaaaaantastic.
  • After much of the community around the SA and other blogs raised a stink about this, Dr. Lee’s post was reinstated, and an “apology” was posted. I’m using scarequotes because at no time in the piece was Dr. Lee actually apologized to by SA, and there was nothing in their post covering this to the effect of “this person’s behaviour was completely inexcusable.” While it’d be nice to think that that goes without saying, I’ve been around the sun enough times to know that that’s not the case.

And then yesterday morning, it came to light that SA’s blog editor Bora Zivkovic has sexually harassed a woman named Monica Byrne (and, judging by the comments on that piece, some other women) at what she thought was business meeting where she was trying to pitch stories. Byrne who wrote that post a year ago without Zivkovic’s name on it, and actually named him elsewhere a few weeks ago, but in light of Dr. Lee’s harassment, she updated her own post and it’s gotten attention. He’s issued an apology — notably not on SA — and while it’s a clear enough apology, I’m not holding my breath that it means an awful lot. It’s straightforward to apologize after the fact, but shifting your attitudes and actions takes work.

The second incident underscores how asinine the initial SA response to Dr. Lee’s harassment was:

The environment we live in shapes how we do our work, what work we do, how we talk about our work, and who we are as scientists. The personal isn’t separate and distinct from the professional, and nor should it be: our personal experiences and perspectives are bringing a much needed diversity of viewpoints to academia and to science. The personal, for women, includes navigating a minefield of sexism and sexual harassment in the past, the present, and the future, and as these two incidents clearly show, the professional regularly requires the same. Scientific American still owes Dr. Lee a proper apology, and Dr. Zivkovic needs to demonstrate that he understands where he crossed boundaries and refrain from crossing more. Hopefully both of these will occur shortly, but unfortunately I don’t expect that this will be the last instance of harassment being poorly handled.

Quite a lot of people have already written thoughtful reactions to these two incidents, so I’m just going to direct you to some of them (below this paragraph). Additionally, LadyBits has posted a call for submissions on sexual harassment for a collection on Medium.

WEDNESDAY EVENING UPDATE: More people have come forward about their harassment, notably Hannah Waters. I’ve added another few things to read at the end of the list.

Other things to read:

Scientist or ‘Whore’? Incident Symbolizes Familiar Struggle for Women of Color in Science
What @sciam’s actions tell me as a female scientist of colour
Derailing Techniques and My Final Thoughts on Scientific American’s Public Statement
Why Be So Militant About a Woman’s Right to Name Her Harasser
Another Sexual Harassment Case in Science: The Deafening Silence That Surrounds It Condones It
This is Not a Post I Want to Write
Silence and Friendship
Let Me Fix That For You
The Insidious Power of Not-Quite-Harassment
Mixed Up
Science, Blogging, Sexual Harassment, and the Power of Speaking Out
Science Online Board Statement 10/16/2013

New Ideas in Academic Presentations: PICO at the EGU

I’ve been deliberately vague about the research I do, since I’m trying to remain at least somewhat anonymous for now, but it’s in the realm of geosciences, and after a side trip, I’ve come back from the European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna. This year, the EGU introduced a new type of presentation: along with the traditional oral and poster presentation styles, they added the PICO (Presenting Interactive Content) as an attempt to bridge the gap between the two. Here’s the official EGU video explaining the format:

PICO presentations have two parts: first there is a rapid-fire string of two minute/two slide talks by all the presenters in a session, and then there is a block of time where presenters can give a longer, more in-depth and informal presentation on one of the large touch screens in the area. Audience members can scan through the full presentations on the screens themselves, and presenters can circulate and solicit feedback on their work.

The first part serves as an elevator pitch: ideally, it gives a quick sketch of the presenter’s work, and entices the audience to listen to the full presentation. The second part allows for the presenter to get direct feedback from the audience, gives the presenters a focussed audience (since they can seek out the presentations that interested them, rather than milling through hundreds of posters), and increases the range of visual aids available. In many ways, it combines the best parts of oral and poster presentations, and I think it’s got a lot of potential.

But it’s a new format of communication in a realm where new and innovative methods of communication are few and far between, and from what I saw, this format was largely a missed opportunity. The two minute talk seemed to throw people the most: rather than editing their material severely for the pitch, many people put every detail into their slides. I saw slides with half a dozen paragraphs, half a dozen figures, and a few with both. Even on a giant projection screen, it’s unreadable, and when it’s flashed for a minute, it’s a detriment to the presentation. If I tried to focus on even one thing on the screen, I tuned out what the presenter was saying. Visual aids should be just that: aids. They should support communication, and here communication is not throwing every detail at the wall and seeing what sticks.

The longer presentations were generally better, but I thought many of them read as “powerpoint slides that accompany a oral presentation” rather than a presentation which can stand on its own (in case an audience member flips through it on their own) as well as a guide or aid for the presenter for a full, informal talk. Since this was a new format, I suspect no-one really knew what to do with it, but I think that it’s an opportunity to try something new, rather than reverting to old approaches.

One of the really powerful things with this format is that it makes it much easier to build a presentation that’s interesting and accessible to a range of audiences. I can’t be the only person who wanders in to sessions on things I know little about but sound interesting, but often I wind up confused and/or bored in those sessions because the presenter, not unreasonably, assumes that their audience is familiar with their field and adjusts their level of detail and jargon accordingly. But even for an audience of peers, a two minute talk is not the time for fussy details and specificity, so ideally the elevator pitch component would be accessible to a wide audience, encouraging people to come at least get a zeroth-order approximation to what people are doing in fields beyond their own.

But the real flexibility comes in with the longer presentation with the touch screens. Most of the people I saw at these presentations flipped through presentations on their own (maybe with two or three other people) even when they were talking with the presenter. The very small audience size and the electronic medium means that the presentation doesn’t have to flip linearly: the presenter can give an accessible, jargon free presentation, and where there are more details relevant to people who work on related topics, can put a link that says “Click here for more details” that leads to a side branch that contains details or data. This way the details are there for people who care about them, and interested audience members can ask or investigate, but they don’t clog up the presentation for people who don’t care about them.

This structure means you can reach a wider audience with a single presentation, which at a scientific conference, is obviously important. It also makes the presenter think about what’s essential information and what’s fussy details, and to think about how to effectively communicate that. To be clear, I’m not saying fussy details have no place in academic presentations — science is about details and precision, and that precision is important in communication too. But someone with no previous knowledge of your work won’t be able to understand your work effectively if the way it’s communicated is all details. I’m also not saying that I’ve cracked the code for academic presentations: while I think I’m improving, I still often use too many words and too many unnecessary details in my presentations. I think giving a PICO talk, which made me think about how to strip my work down to the bare bones for the two minute part, was a very helpful exercise.

But from what I (very informally) gathered, the reaction to the format was mixed. I’m interested to see whether the EGU uses it again next year, and if it does, what adjustments (if any) they make to it. I’m also curious to what extent the hesitance to embrace the format (or at least what I perceived as hesitance) are influenced by the wider-spread reluctance to avoid short, snappy talks for fear of them either TED-ifying or oversimplifying the material.

Somewhat relatedly, there’s a recent post on University Affairs criticizing the Three Minute Thesis competition:

For me, the 3MT [Three Minute Thesis] certainly prompted the question of whether academic researchers should be in the business of embracing an era of short attention spans, a world in which you should be able to say something succinctly or not at all.

To my mind, this isn’t an either/or sort of thing: it’s quite possible, and very useful, to be able to communicate the essential gist of an idea as well as the fully developed idea laden with nuance and detail, and both tacks are useful in different situations and for different audiences. PICO presentations are set up to highlight both tacks, which forces presenters to approach their material differently than traditional presentations. Much of the criticism of the Three Minute Thesis competition in the piece seems to be that people do it badly, and I’d argue that that’s incentive to do *more* of these sorts of talks, not less. I can’t speak for all academics, for sure, but there’s little formal emphasis put on developing communication skills, written or oral. Neither are skills that everyone naturally has, so having more venues and opportunities to learn how to be an engaging communicator are useful. (I do, however, agree with the author that grant money should not be tied to these sorts of competitions.)

To that end, the EGU’s new format has even more potential, since it’s not a complete jump to the slick world of snappy ideas. It encourages people from outside the field to sit in — my session comprised of three completely distinct topics, and I’d’ve never gone to either of the other two topics’ talks had they not been bundled with mine. But most importantly, it’s a way to get academics thinking differently about communication, and communication beyond their peers. To that end, I hope the EGU keeps the format and expands the number of sessions that use it.

Some Scattered Thoughts on Outreach Work

There’s been a flurry of discussion recently about the nature, value, and workload or or related to outreach work, and as a fledgling blog writer with grand ambitions, I have a few cents I’d like to toss into the ring. The flurry got kicked off by Scicurious’s and Kate Clancy’s excellent posts, and Cedar Riener weighed in on it shortly afterward, but there’s lots going on on Twitter too. Miriam Goldstein’s flowchart is worth a look too (and has some great resources at the end).

In my (admittedly limited) experience, outreach work is seen as icing flourishes on a cake: nice to see, can make an otherwise tasty cake stand out amongst its bretheren, but not really necessary, and occasionally a bit too flashy. I’ve not seen any academics be especially bothered by a lack of outreach work, though I have seen the presence of it help make an already highly regarded candidate for a position stand out a little more (and some people suppress an eyeroll when it comes up). However, I’ve never seen it outweigh more directly academic factors on a scientist’s CV, and I don’t expect it ever would. So of course, given the dizzying array of Things That Academics Must or Should Do To Be Good Scientists, it’s natural that outreach is often very low or entirely absent from that list, because there’s a dozen other things that are more pressing.

I understand why academics don’t prioritize outreach in their own work, but the dismissal that other academics sometimes (often?) show for other people’s outreach work is a bit baffling to me. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but is it considered a waste of time? A waste of knowledge? A waste of effort? Or are they threatened by the idea of Top Secret Scientific Knowledge escaping from the pristine ivory tower? I think this is all nonsense — I think communicating our scientific progress to the public is extremely important, and while it’s not something that can be dashed off in an hour while you wait for your code to finish running, it’s certainly not an impossible task. (Apparently I still have some vestigial idealism clinging to my pant hems from my undergrad days!)

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