Monday, November 14, 2016

A template for talking to a class of science students during difficult times

Part I: What worked.

I studied engineering as an undergraduate in part because I thought I might want to be an astronaut. The day the Challenger space shuttle exploded shook me and my classmates. I remember walking into my intro to engineering class and the professor said not a word, no eye contact, just turned to the board and continued his lecture on force balance. I see —Engineers just keep their nose to the grindstone, and continue their work.

Fast forward fifteen years. I have just arrived at the synchrotron beamline having left my 2-year old back home with my husband. It is morning and we are doing safety training and preparing our experiments and someone comes and switches the TV monitors to the news. I watch a burning tower close to home and I watch as a second plane crashes into the tower. When I realize what is happening/what has happened, I crumble. I am comforted by the janitor as the scientists continue their work.

So I have learned that as scientists we keep our nose to the grindstone and what we have to offer as professionals is reason. Evidence based decision making. Data.

Last Wednesday I asked my dad: what do I say to my students today? Stick to the script, he said.

So I did. I ran from a meeting* to my class. The room—about 30 mineralogy students in the classroom—was buzzing.

What now?
What will happen to science funding?
What can I (as a student) do?
Why even study mineralogy?

I looked at their faces. I also noticed some key absences and made a mental note to follow up by email.
I don’t know.
It is now my job to advocate.
We’re here to practice scientific reason and evidence, but we also can guide ourselves by our compassion.
Today we will take temporary refuge in the tectosilicates. Think globally, act locally.

Part II: What didn’t work.

Over the last few years I have started asking a new question to family, friends, close colleagues: what is most important in the world right now: reason? or compassion?

Has it been a disservice, my training in reason but without a significant compassion component? Yes I think so. And I am now in a position to fix it! But how? Perhaps by bringing it out in the open? By talking?

The next day was lab time—and the TA and I decided to earmark some of the time for discussion.
We lay out our plans: Big things have happened in the world, and we want to give ourselves an opportunity to talk and share, because we are scientists and we are also people.

We acknowledged up front—listening/sharing is not a requirement. Please feel free to pull out your microscope/books/lab sheets and get to work.

There were 15 students in that room and 15 different experiences is a vast world of experience and thoughts and emotion. And I listened to the students and marveled at what a microcosm of the world even a group of 15 UCLA students can be. And there were two lab sections.

I saw warmth and sharing and caring but I also saw some crossed arms and angry eyes. Not all of us are suffering in the same way and not all of us are suffering.
And I am not trained in moderating an emotional discussion. I’m trained in math and science and engineering. I’m trained in reason, but I am not trained in combining reason and compassion. We closed the discussion, thanked the student, and got back to work. I reminded the students that I am always here to talk—about mineralogy or anything—and took my place at the back of the lab with my stack of papers to grade. Some students swung back to say hi, ask a question, tell me their stories. I checked in with others—did I make the right decision? The students are polite — I am in a position of power, even if invite my students to question my own choices with me.

I think it was a fumble, and I hope my choice did not cause students pain.

My job is to teach both reason and compassion to my science students. But in the context of being a science professor, perhaps compassion is this: gently guiding students to the discipline of learning/doing science. Reason is one of the foundations of hope. I must also welcome compassion to the table though: I’ll share with all the students my acknowledgement that not everyone is able to get back to work yet. Part of our job as scientists is to take care of ourselves first, so that we are able to do the sometimes hard work. And that I am here/there/everywhere for all my students for all the parts of being human and being a scientist.

*It was a luncheon where a spectrum of UCLA adults sat in the room and some of us cried. Turns out the woman sitting next to me and crying with me was the oral surgeon who pulled a few of my wisdom teeth a few years ago. Small world. And I now have a sister in blood, teeth, and tears.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Today's Journal Entry--post election plotz

today's journal entry:

10 Nov 2016
When I woke up on Monday I thought the nightmare was about climate change, and maybe in the end it will all still be about that.

People I know who felt safe in the world—e.g. my son, husband—were devastated on Tuesday night. People who already knew they were never safe in this world, that safety is an illusion, that it was always an illusion, but maybe the illusion crumbled for them with the towers 15 years ago, felt a familiar deep pit in their bellies that could always be invoked, but managed to be set aside so that the work of life could go forward.

For months now, I have been thinking of John Dos Passos’s invocation of “we are two nations.” The entire trilogy is a mechanism for this phrase.

The two nations have always been the haves and have-nots, but what it is exactly that we have and who has it and has-not it has changed.  In Dos Passos’s day, was the proletariat vs the bourgeois—the nations were the wealthy and the workers. It is still so, but doesn't seem the best description of what divides our two nations right now. I know a little bit about my nation (the nation that lost the election: young people, immigrants, liberals, city people, people of color, scientists and science-lovers/believers, etc.) and I know almost nothing about the contours of the nation that won this election—very religious right coupled with rural white people. My ignorance is a telling symptom of the problem, and I am ashamed of it.

 Every once in a while I saw a glimpse of the other nation on facebook, or maybe followed a thread on my twitter account into what appeared to be a vast world,  not for me and so barely accessible. Like very occasionally coming across pornography on the internet. So far from my experience, appreciated as fantasy by a some people I know, but a world that I almost never see—the filters are too good.

The pit in my belly knew about the sinking ship the minute HRC called one of our nations “a basket of deplorables.” It is not hard for me to put myself into a person’s shoes who is being called the passel, and I would want to drain the swamp too. Swamp. There’s something low and wet and smelly and animal about that word.
When women suffer for her mistakes, the world suffers too.

On the other hand, DT made a gazillion mistakes—omigod his life is a series of mistakes encased in a veneer of narcissism—yet he is now our president.

Even amongst my nation, everyone I’ve talked with has a different take-home message from this. Is it because we don’t listen to each other (my neighbor) was it HRC’s badly run campaign? (I've heard this mostly from white men of privilege) is it plain old hatred of the womanly swamp? is it our country’s deep racism and backlash against Obama? tapping into a fear/fascism with the time-tested targets of immigrants and Jews? Is this the result of a generation of republicans sowing mistrust in the tedious hard work of governance and the messy craft of governing? Is it simple greed that helped sow the mistrust in the first place? Is it the interconnection of the world coupled with a lack of the discipline to do evidence-based decision making amplified by a barely knowable statistical fluctuation plus mathematical instability? It’s only been a day and there are many more I haven’t yet talked with so yes yes yes all this and much more.

So now what?
For me right now it’s:

Count blessings at all scales—from my son who poses the question to himself about how best to live his white privilege to my country that accompanies a revolution in leadership with gentle words from leaving leaders side-by-side with protests of the people.

Listen to my friends and acquaintances who come from different backgrounds when they describe and explain their family and friends back home, like ambassadors from another nation. 

Take care of the next generation and the world for the next generation, for I’m now the old generation.

Recognize the path that maximizes reason and compassion and walk it hard.

Journals and prescient dreams

I’ve written a journal since my beloved fourth grade elementary teacher Mrs. Peterson taught us the way. I had a red spiral notebook, and until recently most of my journals were red spiral notebooks.

Here’s what I wrote early Monday morning this week

7 Nov 2016
Water water everywhere in last night’s dreams. Canal systems. Rapids. Waves breaking over the gunwales of big boats and small boats. I am in hiding in a closet with children. I am on a big ship. We get word that it is sinking, but we do not believe. Then when it appears to be listing, we try to do all that we can to fix it. Then when it is clear that it cannot be fixed we have the boat pull over to a frightening looking constructed island structure that seems worse than the boat. But we have to abandon ship.