“Conservatism is the new Punk Rock”. Discuss.

I wrote this guest post for Peter Coles’ “In The Dark” blog about a year ago. Now that “Symptoms…” is back online, I’m reblogging it here for completeness.

In the Dark

It’s been a while since I had a guest post on this blog so it’s a pleasure to present this, by Philip Moriarty, to add to your reading for the Bank Holiday Weekend. Phil and I have had a number of exchanges over the years about the possibility of him writing a post for In The Dark and I’m very happy that it’s finally happened!

Take it away, Philip Moriarty…

–o–

If the conversations and feedback I’ve had at recent “social media in academia” meetings are anything to go by, I suspect that the majority of my academic friends and colleagues will be unaware of the source of the quote above. Although ignorance is certainly the more blissful option here, those of us with any semblance of interest in diversity, equality, gender balance, and widening participation issues in higher education need to start paying attention to just why memes…

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Guest Post: In defence of no-platforming

Every now and again in the comments sections under the videos I upload, there’ll be an insightful, perceptive and well-argued response (amidst many other comments which make Private Eye’s “From The Message Boards” look positively sane by comparison). The (non-italicised) comment under the line below was posted by Guido Bos under the “Science in a ‘post-truth’ world” video I uploaded for the Politics, Perception and Philosophy of Physics module a couple of weeks ago. 

No-platforming has been in the news throughout 2016 due, in no small part, to a certain beyond-narcissistic, self-aggrandising, rent-a-gob pundit who’s the current poster boy for the alt-right. I am, of course, talking about the legend-in-his-own-lunchtime that is  Milo Yiannopoulos.  Milo is, in essence, a bargain-basement Katie Hopkins. (Or perhaps that should be that Hopkins is a bargain-basement Milo? It’s a little difficult to tell when they’re both racing to the bottom at such a pace). His raison d’etre is simply to stir up as much controversy as possible in order to market what’s most important to him: Milo.

Yiannopoulos’ US speaking tour has generated torrents of controversy and he’s been barred from speaking at a number of universities. His most recent hate-filled diatribes against transgender people — where, in one case, he petulantly, aggressively, and despicably targetted an individual student —  have been designed, of course, to be as provocative as possible. Many student groups/unions have aimed to no-platform Yiannopoulos on this basis.

I have always had major misgivings about no-platforming. Not only is it troublesome in terms of locking out opposing opinions — of particular concern on university campuses where debate and discussion should be the lifeblood of everything we do — but it also can be immensely counter-productive when it comes to the likes of Yiannopoulos. No-platforming Milo and his ilk feeds directly into the culture of victim-hood and martyrdom that runs through the entire alt-right movement. They will exploit the ban as a draconian, Orwellian, monstrous attack on their freedom of speech.

Guido, however, makes some very important counter-arguments in his guest post below. It’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. (And it’s really not too often I can say that about comments left under YouTube videos.) I’ll address the questions Guido puts to me at the end of the piece below in a future post. For now, I’ll simply note that targeting an individual student in the odious and cowardly way Yiannopoulos did at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee crosses an exceptionally important line.


I often see the concept of no-platforming framed entirely as “people not capable of dealing with ideas that contradict them”. And in a purely academic sense I agree this is bad. If there’s a dispute between two fields in say, a scientific field (STEM or social) one side shouldn’t just go “oh we should never listen to the opposition & ban ’em from our school!”. However in the cases where I’ve read about stories of no-platforming or speakers being protested, frequently the objections to the discussion have little to do with the substance of the debate but rather … side issues.

I want to say the categories I’ve seen in large part are:

[1] Unequal representation of views. A 1-on-1 debate in an academic setting on the earth being round or flat would be absurd for a simple reason: a flat earth is the most fringe, out there non-scientific belief ever. The very idea it’s worth having a big academic discussion on the possibility of the earth being flat would just be such a misuse of funding and resources. Would you agree that some positions are so inherently non-scientific and so fringe that providing them a platform would be ridiculous simply for what they are?

[2] Style over substance debates (in the ballpark of post-truth). A lot of evolutionary biologists advice against debating creationists/ID proponents for a general audience, for a simple reason: A debate where the rules and topic aren’t particularly tight greatly benefit the spread of misinformation/dirty tactics. While an open discussion on ideas is in itself fine, a lot of creation/id related debates end in that particualr side just trying to spread as much misinformation as is humanly possible, in as little time as possible.

I know many people who are uncomfortable with no-platforming (like Richard Dawkins) strongly hold the view [or held, not sure if it changed] that if the format invites for a clear spread of non-academic misinformation, giving particular people a platform will only result in misinformation. There’s a big difference between critically examining a singular selected claim by a creationist/id group and teaching students to critically examine counter arguments in an academic environment. (I’ve had to do that for a test, critically examine an ID pamphlet & point out the fallacies/misrepresentation of evolution) OR giving a platform to a non-academic viewpoint to basically spread their misinformation nearly unchallenged.

A few things I have in mind here are things like the “gish gallop” (100 things wrong with evolution on a single powerpoint slide, making it literally impossible to disprove all of em) But also: Phil Mason’s debate with Ray Comfort … like I’m obviously more on Mason’s side on the topic but … imagine if that conversation was held in front of a neutral audience of students not read up on the topic? A slick debater like Comfort would have far more sway than … whatever Mason was trying to do.

[3] Ethical concerns In a number of cases protests or demands for no-platforming had less to do with the particular topic and more with the ethics or background of the person in question. Say that a speaker gets invited to speak on engineering, but they’re infamous for basically talking online about how gay people deserve to burn & the person in question relates to certain countries having the death penalty for homosexuality.

If a school actively invites someone & students have issues with this not because of the topic, but because they have significant ethical concerns related to the background of a speaker, would you agree that it’s understandable/acceptable for them to at least protest this? (And for the school to switch speakers if they agree with the sentiment?) There are plenty of things you can fill in here, ranging from a speaker having white nationalist ties, just vaguely discriminatory twitter activity or a situation, we’ve actually had here in the Netherlands, where an actual murderer, gangster, and kidnapper was made the guest of a college tour program: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willem_Holleeder )

Personally I’m not in favor of “Oh schools should just invite anyone, for any reason, at any time, with any background”, not necessarily because I think students shouldn’t be “challenged” but because I expect a level of quality control and respect. If a school I worked at/college I studied at decided to give an open platform to someone whose entire talk is about how “Hitler was right all along”, I’d be absolutely pissed. That has little to do with not wanting to be challenged & more with common decency. Anyway, I was curious (mostly based on those three points) if there are situations where you’d agree/argue that a speaker is indeed not qualified and that providing them a platform to speak would be a mistake? Where exactly would you draw the boundaries between “challenging” students & simply inviting people who don’t belong in an academic setting?

Thanks for reading and kind regards, Guido

Nano Does Nottingham Does Comics

Yesterday evening I spent a fun few hours at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio with my colleagues and friends Brigitte Nerlich, Shey Hargreaves, and Charli Vince. We were invited to a bimonthly event called Nottingham Does Comics. This does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a forum, and I quote, “by and for anybody interested in reading, creating, publishing, selling or studying new work and new horizons in the comics medium.”

My knowledge of graphic novels and comics unfortunately petered out quite some time ago but I was a huge 2000 AD fan when I was growing up (and well beyond when I stopped growing up). I have stacks and stacks of issues of 2000 AD in the attic, and a number of graphic novels on my book shelves at home. My favourite of the genre is the Dredd classic, America. A number of the Sláine volumes run a close (joint) second, however.

Given my lack of graphic novel expertise, you might ask why I was attending — and, indeed, speaking at — Nottingham Does Comics? All is revealed in the flyer below…

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The script for Open Day is finished and Charli, who joined the team quite recently, is now relishing the challenge of bringing Shey’s engaging (and amusing) characters to life via her fantastic artwork. (There’ll be regular updates at Charli’s website). Shey and Charli described to the NDC audience just how they’re translating the research we do to the graphic novel format (in their own inimitable style). Brigitte, who has a long-standing interest in nano images, is documenting the process at the Making Science Public blog.

In addition to having the opportunity to plug Open Day we also got to hear about James Walker‘s fascinatingly innovative Dawn Of The Unread project. (That title alone was all it took for me to shell out for a copy of the …Unread compilation you can see pictured at the bottom of the flyer above). James’ talk was a thoroughly absorbing, and very funny, discussion of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of the Dawn Of The Unread project. He touched on his concerns about the extent to which books (and libraries) are being pushed aside in favour of rather more immediate — and, too often, significantly more shallow — online sources. Let’s just say that James’ arguments on this theme resonated with me just a little. (I’ll expand on this in a future post).

We owe a big debt of thanks to both John “Brick” Clark for the invitation to speak about Open Day at the NDC event and to our host, Jessica Cormack, who made us feel right at home (despite some of us having a shocking lack of knowledge of the comics scene!). Thanks also to all at NDC for the hospitality. Oh, and the mince pies.

And I should of course thank those who have generously funded the Open Day project: the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (via the grant described in this post) and I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here.

Welcome to the Bear Pit: When Public Engagement Goes to Pot

The last time I wrote about the importance of academics engaging with the public, I finished on this upbeat and sweary note: “…you’re an academic, FFS, why aren’t you involved in public engagement?” (It’s perhaps worth reading the blog post in question to put that call to arms in context).

This post is going to be a rather more cautionary tale. That’s not to say that I’m suggesting we academics shouldn’t continue to engage — or at least attempt to engage — with a broader audience than just our students, peers and colleagues. Indeed, although I have been a long-standing critic of the research councils’ impact ‘agenda’, it’s resulted in more thought being paid to how we communicate our research outside our academic circles and that is clearly a very good thing.

But…

Here’s a recent comment posted under a video I uploaded at my YouTube channel:

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That particular piece of vicious libelous abuse — spinelessly issued under anonymous cover, of course — is admittedly rather nastier than what’s usually posted. Here’s another, in the discussion section for the channel, which is a rather more common type of juvenile slur:

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I should stress that the levels of bile and vitriol I receive pale into insignificance against the torrents of abuse that many other YouTube video-makers — or, to use the jargon du jour, content creators — have to endure. I’ll get back to that very soon. First, however, I need to explain just why I’ve started to attract the type of comment above. (Regular readers of Symptoms… (both of you) will be well aware of the reasons underpinning the less-than-erudite feedback that has started to appear at my channel and here at the blog. Feel free to skip past the next section.)

There’s no justice. There’s just us.

If you haven’t yet encountered the pejorative “SJW” (social justice warrior) or its corresponding antiparticle, the “anti-SJW”, then count yourself very lucky indeed. There are battles raging across vast swathes of the internet where those who would identify as proponents of social justice (in the sense described by John Rawls, for example) are pitted against those who see progress towards social justice as being a direct infringement of their basic civil liberties — including, and especially, freedom of speech — that will ultimately result in the fall of western civilisation as we know it. Those who would classify themselves in this latter category tend to be incensed by the notion of political correctness.

I generalise, of course. And that type of sweeping generalisation is a major part of the problem. It’s exceptionally tribal out there. Many of those who claim – vociferously — that they’re independent, free thinkers too often gleefully succumb to mob mentality, labelling those who express opinions counter to theirs as The Other. (More on this towards the end of this post). Similarly, those who would claim that it’s the “left” who want to trample on free speech should pay attention to the opprobrium that Gary Lineker has attracted (including calls for him to be sacked) for this important tweet:

How did I get drawn into the “SJW vs anti-SJW” war of attrition?

I’ve been involved with making videos for YouTube since 2009 via Brady Haran’s channels (largely Sixty Symbols, but I’ve also enjoyed contributing to Numberphile and Computerphile. And I’ve even crossed the physics-chemistry trenches for an occasional Periodic Video).  That has led to quite a bit of online discussion in the comments sections for those videos, which, as I discussed in this Physics World article a couple of years ago, was largely intelligent, engaging, fun, and not infrequently made me reconsider just how I was teaching physics. More recently, public engagement via YouTube has even led to an undergraduate research project (with a publication to follow in hopefully the not-too-distant future).

Many of my colleagues (including postdoctoral and PhD researchers in the group here) thought I was mad for engaging in the comments sections of those videos. (They still do. But even more so now). For them, “below the line”, in just about any online forum, too often represents the condensed collective stupidity of humanity. No good can come of wading into those murky, and grammatically challenged, waters they tell me. But I’d in turn point out that I’ve gained quite a bit out of engaging online and have not had to tolerate any type of bile or abuse at all [1].

Until recently. Being involved with Sixty Symbols and Brady’s other channels has meant that I get invitations to different podcasts/events on a reasonably regular basis. One of these was something called the Magic Sandwich Show. A regular contributor to the MSS for a number of years was a certain Dr. Phil Mason (aka ‘thunderf00t’). On an episode of the MSS last year, he and I clashed on the question of the role of sexual dimorphism as a determinant in the gender balance in physics. I’m not about to revisit that lengthy saga here, you’ll be relieved to know. Here’s a summary.

That spat with Mason was my gateway to the Social Justice WarsTM . I’ve already spent too much time writing about the various YouTube channels which underpin a great deal of the bile and vitriol (see this blog, passim), so I’ll defer to Hank Green for a pithy summary of a key aspect of the problem:

Now, before the keyboards start a rattlin’ among a certain online ‘demographic’, am I saying that all who don’t identify with the social justice position are hate-filled teenage boys? No. Of course not. And I was at pains in this recent video to argue that we shouldn’t generalise:

But let’s not be silly here. There’s clearly a pattern of behaviour in certain online “communities” (and I use the term advisedly) that frequently results in certain channels being swamped by torrents of abuse. Let’s take a look at one prime example.

If you go down to the woods today…

There is a culture among subsets of the subscriber bases of certain YouTube content providers video-makers [2] of posting vicious bile and vitriol under particular videos. The videos in question tend, ever so coincidentally, to be those which that particular video-maker has recently targeted for critique. Here’s a particularly apposite case in point:

bearing

That cartoon is the avatar for a YouTuber called Bearing. I have no idea as to his real name. To the best of my knowledge he has not ever revealed his identity and prefers instead to conceal himself behind the cartoon bear shown above (which he’s borrowed, apparently without attribution, from a show called Total Drama ).  

This ‘Bearing’ person has a tendency to make videos critiquing and criticising (to use terms he would prefer) feminist channels. Here’s a recent example. And here’s another. And another. It turns out that there’s a rather strong correlation between the amount of abuse these feminist channels/videos receive and whether or not they’ve been recently critiqued by the guy behind the cartoon bear. The comment section of a video selected by ‘Bearing’ for critique tends to be flooded with abuse, to the point where the video maker either deletes the video entirely from the channel or makes it private. Like this. Or this.

The most recent target of ‘Bearing”s criticism is [EDIT 18/12/2016Removed name of YouTuber so as to ensure her channel does not receive more abuse via this blog post. Henceforth referred to as “Jane Doe”]. “Jane” has not taken down her video but has disabled comments and likes/dislikes. Just to give you an idea of how vicious and pathetically immature the behaviour of this online mob can get, here’s a sample of comments under one of the other videos at “Jane”‘s channel…

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Note the response directly above from “032 Mendicant Bias”. They’re laudably trying to point out the despicable behaviour of the mob. One other person attempts to do this elsewhere in the comments. Note the response.

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(…and that’s not the end of ‘Sarah Benton’s diatribe. But what I’ve included of the comments here is already dispiriting enough).

As “Overlord Penmaeda” points out above, the video under which this bile has been posted has got nothing to do with feminism. Yet the mob is so incensed, they target her in any way they can.

As if the viciousness of the comments wasn’t enough, there’s this galling and deeply hypocritical comment (note the number of “likes”):

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A person cravenly hiding behind a pseudonym and an avatar, in common with the vast majority of those who post abuse, is whining about the perceived ‘cowardice’ of someone who uploaded a video where she doesn’t attempt to hide her identity in any way and speaks her mind. I think we can all see who the coward is in this case. [3]

It’s worth noting that the comment above wasn’t posted under one of “Jane”‘s videos. It was posted at ‘Bearing”s channel. Along with quite a lot of other vitriol along the lines of that above.

Now, the guy behind the cartoon bear argues that he is not responsible for what his subscribers do. He even laudably includes a disclaimer in the information under the videos he uploads.

First, having worked with Brady Haran for quite some time on YT videos, let’s just say that I’m not entirely convinced of the efficacy of including anything in the video information. In this video, for example, I misspoke towards the end. We included a correction in the video information. Yet I receive a steady stream of e-mails asking me about precisely that misspoken point.

But let’s give this ‘Bearing’ character the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that he’s sincere in the intention given in his disclaimer. Yet, strangely enough, every time he uploads a video criticising a feminist channel or video, shortly afterwards spiteful and vicious abuse is posted by spineless, faceless idiots at that particular channel/video. Most of us would notice this rather strong correlation. This ‘Bearing’ chap is clearly not exceptionally stupid so I find it somewhat difficult to believe that he too has not noticed the correlation, particularly as it doesn’t take very long to find comments like the following posted under those particular videos before they’re taken down:

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Now, the guy behind the cartoon bear argues that he’s not responsible for the behaviour of his subscribers. I agree. He can’t dictate what they should or should not do. But I, for one, would be appalled to think that any video critique I made would result in the subject of that criticism being targetted with vicious, spiteful abuse. I might be rather ashamed to have any type of connection between the critique I posted and that type of hateful behaviour. I would be particularly aghast to find that an especially cowardly and vicious subset of those who had subscribed to my channel were responsible for that anonymous abuse and that I was therefore indirectly the origin of the mob’s abusive comments.

But that’s just me.

Oh, and some others…

As for those hiding behind pseudonyms and avatars, lacking the courage and integrity to stand behind their slurs while they complain about others being “delicate flowers”, they shouldn’t think for one minute that “words on a screen” can’t have real world impact. Others might also want to bear that in mind.

Freeze Peach

I have long had a policy at my blog and YouTube channel that I wouldn’t moderate, censor, or edit comments in any way. I describe my motivations for this stance in the second half of this post. A recent article by Hank Green (yes, him again), Stop Screaming In My Home,  and discussions with friends and colleagues have made me reconsider that stance.

Just as for the feminist channels described above, I have recently seen a sharp increase in the number of dislikes for videos (posted years ago) that have nothing to do with my criticism of that certain clique of YouTubers and their views. Similarly, comments related to my spats with Philip Mason and others have been posted under entirely unrelated videos focussed on physics, or music, or both. This is juvenile behaviour.

I’d use a slightly different analogy to that Hank Green outlined in his article. To me, it’s like trying to give a lecture to undergraduates while there’s a bunch of particularly immature kids sitting in the corner of the lecture theatre shouting out “Hey Mr Poopy Head” every minute or so. They’re not there to give constructive criticism — they’re there simply to be disruptive. Free speech doesn’t come into it.

Moreover, I have long been a critic of reducing any type of activity down to simplistic numerical metrics. Usually I’m bemoaning the use of h-indices, impact factors and the like in academia, or the pseudostatistics of primary school assessment, but much the same arguments hold for likes vs dislikes for a video. Moreover, when a 37-minute-long video can receive a number of dislikes within a couple of minutes of being uploaded, one has got to start to question the validity of the “data”. And, sure, the number of likes far outweighed the dislikes in that case. But so what? Those figures reveal nothing about the quality — as opposed to the popularity — of the video. And if the data are being contaminated by noise, I’d be a pretty poor scientist to not attempt to remove that noise.

So from now on, I am shutting down the likes and dislikes for all videos which are not related to the themes discussed above, for the reasons discussed above. Similarly, if comments are posted under a physics-only video related to the themes discussed above, then I will screenshot that comment, remove it, and instead include the screenshot in a (continually updated) post here at the blog [Edit 09/11/2016 I decided instead to simply append the comments in question to this post. See below.] . That way I can sift out irrelevant comments and also have a rather helpful record of the, let’s say, less erudite feedback posted at the YouTube channel.

The Mob Rules

In the “Reacting to Reactions to Reasonable Questions…” video embedded above, I spend quite a bit of time responding to comments from Noel Plum. While Noel and I quibble about certain topics, on the subject of online bullying and posting bile/vitriol/abusive comments I think we’re broadly in agreement. Noel’s recent comments regarding psychological damage (in this recent video) would appear to chime rather closely with my thoughts on the issue. I look forward to having a discussion with Noel on this, and other, themes when he and I can both carve out some time for an online chat.

There’s another reason I wanted to bring up Noel’s recent video, however, and it relates to something I alluded to above: the mob mentality. In the comments section under Noel’s video there’s an hilarious thread which runs to, when I last looked, 75 comments debating whether or not I should be called a “social justice warrior”. The pathological need to label me and put me in either the “SJW” or the “anti-SJW” camp is farcical in the extreme (and Noel interjects at one point in the thread to point this out.)

“He’s definitely an SJW. Burn the heretic. Stone him. Run him out of town. He’s one of them, I tell you. One of them.”

And with that, I’ll leave you with a classic, and rather pertinent, Rush track…

[1] Actually, that’s a little bit of a fib. We did a video on the physics of a game called Portal 2 a while back where I pointed out that the momentum of the main character isn’t conserved. The morning after that video was uploaded I opened up my e-mail box to find a number of missives from rather irate Portal 2 players who castigated me in no uncertain terms for deigning to critique the game in the mildest possible way. And this was despite the fact that I had actually praised the game. The extreme sensitivity took me aback.

[2] My back is now hurting badly from having to bend over backwards to the extent I do here so as not to generalise.

[3] I find that even exceptionally mild criticism of anonymity tends to lead to a significant number of comments about “doxing“. For the record (and for the n^nth time), I am not suggesting for one second that anyone be “doxed”, nor that the apparently sacrosanct right to anonymity be in any way compromised. I am simply pointing out just how spinelessly hypocritical it is to hide behind cover of anonymity to slag off another person, while all the while whining about how much that person is a “delicate flower” because they decide they’d prefer not to read hateful anonymous abuse.


The Whining Wall

I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)

As noted in the post above, in the following section I’m going to append screenshots of the less ‘insightful’ and/or relevant and/or spam comments I receive.

My erudite pseudonymous friend Enkidu has the honour of the inaugural whine. They seem to have a rather weak understanding of just what is meant by censorship. Here are their words of wisdom for all the world – well, that infinitesimally small subset of the world that visits this blog – to see…

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STEMming the tide

This is a guest post from Michea Bonilla on a particularly timely subject: the value of non-STEM subjects and disciplines. There’s been a great deal of furore over the last few days regarding the “culling” of A-level subjects such as art history and archaeology. As a physicist (which is about as STEM as it gets), I find the continual elevation of STEM subjects over the arts and humanities to be dispiriting and immensely worrying from a number of perspectives, some of which I described in a post last year.

What’s particularly irksome is that fundamental scientific research — i.e. work which is done without an eye on the bottom line or the potential for the next new widget — is rather closer in ethos to the arts and humanities than it is to, for example, engineering or near-market R&D. Michea’s post provides an engaging, personal and important insight into their experience of the STEM vs non-STEM divide…

(P.S. I’m responsible for the title above so if you feel it misrepresents the post it’s me that’s to blame, not Michea).


 

So I wanted to start this off by giving you all a bit of my background, especially since I will be dicussing STEM and non-STEM degrees and the disservice we are doing to our children (and ourselves!) with the constant push for STEM while sometimes outright shunning anything else.

I am a 34 year old who holds two degrees, a Masters of Divinity (a religion degree commonly posessed by clergy) and an Associate of the Arts Oregon Transfer Degree with a focus in Sociology. Why an AA instead of an AS? Long story short, I was out of financial aid money and I had already racked up $30k in student loans due to having to change majors because of health issues. It was the only degree available that I had “completed” all of the requirements to get.

I grew up in a house that praised both STEM and non-STEM fields. My mother is a microbiologist and veterinary technician and my father holds two degrees, one in fish and wildlife (a STEM degree) and the other in economics. I grew up spending many of my weekends with my mother in the lab at the VMTH at UC Davis and developed an outright love for the biological sciences. To this day the smell of the gram stain chemicals will almost instantly bring a smile to my face because of my memories in the lab.

I excelled in school in science and in music, but struggled in math and English. I even received awards of Honors in Biology and Recognition in Chemistry from the Golden State Exam. I completed the course work required for the basic computers course in under two months my senior year and transferred into the advanced class at the beginning of the second semester.

So why is all of this important?

Because growing up, even though I knew that both STEM and non-STEM fields were necessary for a well rounded society I still had to deal with the constant comments about “throw away degrees”. The Liberal Arts degree jokes were a dime a dozen, and if you considered going into a field that was considered a liberal art or humanities, you were teased to no end. I even bought into the hype about how if I wanted to earn a decent wage and not be a burger flipper or working a minimum wage job my whole life I would have to get a STEM degree.

I was already pretty burnt out on school by the time I graduated in 2000 due to the introduction of the senior project and the fact that I was actually taking extra classes on top of my already full class load. While most students had at least one open period, I had -1 open periods. I actually had two classes at the same time (senior project and computers). I took two English classes that year because the school wasn’t willing to let me count my British Literature course as my senior English credit and my World Literature course as my junior English credit. I took math applications that year and learned how to apply math to real world situations, which meant I had a lot of extra work outside of school.

While I had wanted to take a break and get my head on straight, my family pushed for me to enter college through Solano Community College since my grades and test scores (ACT, SAT II, ASVAB) weren’t “good enough” for the colleges I wanted to go to. Never mind that I scored in the top 90th percentile for my ACT and the top 99th percentile in almost everything on the ASVAB…my grades were what shot me in the foot.

I enrolled in the fall of 2000 with my major listed as undecided and did my best to make my parents proud. I wanted to get a degree in either micro or molecular biology, but I was also really wanting to get a degree in literature or history. I was too ashamed to tell anyone that I wanted a degree in a field that was the source of “Would you like fries with that?” jokes and ridicule.

I dropped out of college due to fatigue in 2001 and spent the next four years working various jobs, including cooking jobs for Xanterra National Parks and Resorts. I constantly looked back at my failures in college and friends and family kept urging me to go back to school so I could get a degree and make decent money. Every time I brought up a degree that wasn’t in one of the STEM fields I was met with reminders about how those sorts of degrees weren’t worth anything and I would just be wasting my time. I was told that all the “good jobs” were in STEM and I needed to focus on one of those fields.

Another big push was to work in a medical field, which I decided to go for in 2005 when I entered training to become a phlebotomist and lab assistant. I got to intern at Kaiser Regional Microbiology in Berkeley, California and on Travis Air Force Base. I was happiest when I was able to work in the lab, but I learned early on that unless I had a masters or higher I would be nothing more than a grunt wherever I worked.

I began work as a phlebotomist in 2006 and found myself getting paid only a dollar or so more than when I worked as a cook (with no certifications, training, or well…anything). Sure, I had a job, but it wasn’t anything like everyone had been promising me.

Fast forward to 2013 and I have just completed my M:Div and am also enrolled in college at Rogue Community College. I find myself joking about my “throw away degree” and how I’m trying to get a degree in a field where I can actually make money and have a steady job.

I feel shame whenever my M:Div is brought up.

My parents remind me from time to time that my father was able to complete his masters in 4-5 years, and that I really should apply myself better.

I wound up spending four years at RCC due to mental health issues and having to go from full time to half time. I racked up $30k in student loans just to survive and appealed multiple times to have my financial aid extended after having to change my major not once, but twice (Early Childhood Education → Criminology → AAOT). When I graduated in 2015 I didn’t feel pride, I felt disappointed and like I had let people down. Sure, I had my degree, but it was pretty much useless outside of transferring to a university.

So…what does all of this have to do with STEM v non-STEM degrees?

A couple of months ago I found an article that discusses how we are doing a disservice to our children by shunning non-STEM subjects, especially literature and the arts. After reading it I looked at what was going on with my own daughters and I felt my heart sink.

My eldest had gone off to Job Corps to learn a trade, but she had been told by her counselor before she left school that anything outside of a STEM degree would be a worthless degree and she should either learn a trade or get a STEM degree.  She told me a few years later that at the time she’d wanted to tell that person they were full of sh*t, but she’d kept her mouth shut.

Currently she’s unemployed with certifications in culinary arts. People want experience, not certifications, where we live, so she is stuck either getting a minimum wage job to gain experience, or find a job in a different field than the one she’s trained in.

My middle daughter is the one suffering the most from this push for STEM degrees. She is very skilled in art and loves music, but she has been told that if she gets a degree in either of those fields, she might as well just throw her money away. Before she’d been told that she had planned on going into the music field and possibly teaching music.

Now, she doesn’t know any more and is just sort of drifting about as she finishes her final year in high school.

Because of the push for STEM classes, the board of education in Oregon decided that students had to take three years of math, but only classes listed at Algebra 1 or higher would count. Both of my step daughters (the two oldest) were moved around constantly when they were younger so they were still in basic math when they entered high school. This gave them a year to go from having trouble with basic addition and subtraction, to learning the quadratic equation.

Needless to say, they failed horribly, even with extra math classes and assistance.

One would expect that if a child failed a class, that the next year they would repeat it so as to get a passing grade. In the case of my daughters, they were just pushed into the next level of math. So they went from basic math to Algebra 1. My eldest decided to change her diploma to one of the “alternative” diplomas due to this very issue, and wound up wasting an entire school year. She was receiving grades on things like watching movies! That was how little these people thought of the children who opted to go for one of the alternative diplomas (either due to special needs or due to just giving up). Anything to keep those graduation numbers up!

Oregon offers the standard diploma, a modified diploma (which has “lowered” requirements in the core classes and double the amount of electives), an extended diploma (which only requires half the credits of a regular degree AND has lowered requirements), and an alternative certificate (basically you’re just a warm body that gets counted to help bring in money and you get to walk across the stage at graduation). The reason for this is that with the push towards higher levels of STEM classes and the push for students to go into STEM fields, students began failing to meet requirements to graduate.  Instead of reevaluating the situation and possibly changing the graduation requirements to meet those of another state (each state has its own requirements for graduation! There is no “federal standard”!), they decided to create new diploma options, many of which are little more than a piece of paper.

With a modified diploma you cannot get into a four year university. You have a chance at getting into a community college, but you’re most likely going to be making up for lost time with remedial classes and thus wasting your financial aid and being forced to take out student loans. Trade school acceptance is a crap shoot. You cannot enlist in the military for the most part, and you will find yourself having difficulty finding work since it is a “lesser” diploma.

With an extended diploma or an alternative certificate….yeah. You might as well just go for your GED.

We are cutting music, literature, art, and humanities classes at a frightening rate in our high schools while continuing to push for our students to excel in math, science, and English. We are forgetting that while it is good to have a focus on STEM subjects, and that STEM fields are important, so are the non-STEM fields.

In Oregon, we lump foreign language, the arts, and career and technical education (CTE) into one category. Children need three credits (years) to graduate with a standard diploma, but the school pushes for students to either learn a foreign language or focus on the CTE classes. Math, social sciences, and science require three credits each, English requires four credits, health (another science class) requires one credit, and physical education requires one credit. Children also have to earn six credits of “electives”.

We need literature, music, art, and all of the other fields. We are beginning to suffer as a society due to our children not learning anything more than a cursory once over of these subjects. Many children don’t read outside of what is required for school since reading for pleasure is seen as a waste of time in many cases. If a child starts showing interest in music or art teachers begin to try to steer them towards a field with a “better future”.

We have the science to prove that we need these fields, and that children need to learn about and immerse themselves in these fields; yet we are continuing to cut them from our curriculum at an alarming rate, replacing them with “elective” classes. When a child sees that their favorite subject is an “elective” versus a “core” class, they begin to look down on it. It happened to me, it happened to my husband, and it has happened to my kids.

To this very day I still have to fight that the social sciences are valid options for a field of study. I get told that if it’s not a “natural science” then it’s worthless. I get told that my preferred fields of study (psychology and sociology) are bullsh*t. Heck, people even grade the social sciences as some being more “science” than others, just to justify their attacks on certain fields.

If people are doing this with the social sciences, you can just imagine what they are doing with the arts and humanities fields.

We need to stop treating STEM fields as the high lord and master and remember that we need ALL fields of study to be able to be a well rounded society. We need to stop shaming people who wish to go into the non-STEM fields, and we need to stop telling our children that they won’t be able to be successful unless they go into either a STEM field or into the medical field.

No cuts, no confidence at University of Leicester

A couple of weeks ago, Peter Coles, whose In The Dark blog I follow, highlighted worrying news about the “down-sizing” of the Maths department at the University of Leicester. Equally worryingly, the Condensed Matter Physics group at Leicester, which has a strong track record in nanoscience research, has been proposed for closure.

I would encourage you to sign the UCU’s petition against the cuts at the University of Leicester: No cuts, No confidence at University of Leicester

 

 

And so farewell. Leaving Labour.

I was going to write a post on my thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory at the weekend but in the reblogged post below Fr. Blackledge sums up a lot of what I’d wanted to say…and then some. I agree with his sound advice to Corbyn (although, unlike Fr. Blackledge, I’ll remain a member of the Labour Party).

frpip

So here’s my letter of farewell to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.

I was an entryist, really. I hadn’t been a member of the Labour party for years, but I decided to put up the money in order to vote at this leaderhsip election. Like 40% of those who joined for this purpose, I voted to try and vote you out. We lost, as you probably know… I didn’t vote against you because of your policies. I voted against you because you are unelectable.

I think the Labour party is dead and gone for a generation at least, possibly for all time. But Jeremy, I wish the best for you, I really do, so for what it’s worth, here’s my advice as a concerned bystander.

 

Have a vision, not a complaint. The strategy of pointing out how horrible the Tories are, and mumbling about “hope” and hoping people will vote…

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