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Here’s a quick letter to the editor (not published as far as I know) regarding the New Yorker’s recent piece on the scientific exploration of Mars. The cover of the New Yorker issue that contained the piece is pictured here. The cover epitomizes the essay.
To the editor:
Burkhard Bilger’s piece “The Martian Chroniclers” (April 22, 2013) came just at the right time for me and my Vassar students in STS/WMST 375, “Gender, Race and Science.” We ‘d been reading all semester feminist histories of science in an attempt to track changes in the culture of science and had just arrived at the issue of the so-called “leaky pipeline” that is, why so many women leave science even after they obtain advanced degrees.
In communicating the tremendous excitement of discoveries of the Martian rover “Curiosity” since its spectacularly successful landing this past summer–I’m a geoscientist who studies what sediments reveal about planetary history–Bilger also inadvertently conveys much about subtleties in science culture that make it difficult for women to persist over the long-term in scientific research.
Bilger’s depiction of mission engineer Adam Steltzner captures the gendered bravado, swagger and profanity (“We think we’ve crushed this fucker”) that characterizes big-money science and puts off people who feel uncomfortable with masculinist discourse. Bilger plays into the gender divide in science. Although he lauds the work of geologist John Grotzinger (who Steltzner derides as “fairly charming but not brash”), he plays up the enthusiasm for the ”arsenal of instruments” that ” slender, effervescent” rover driver Vandi Tompkins has for her scientific endeavor. And he resurrects the birthing trope commenting that “the Sky Crane was Steltzner’s baby….the landing also happened to coincide with another long-term project of his, now approaching its final descent: his wife, Trisha, was nine months pregnant.”
What would science look like if scientists and those who report on it worked actively to end this hierarchically gendered structure?
Jill S. Schneiderman, Professor of Earth Science, Vassar College
Vassar College Students Take on Westboro Baptist Church February 15, 2013Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in earth community, LGBT concerns.
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I’m in the thick of teaching at Vassar College at the moment. I just came off sabbatical and sometimes I feel it’s a hard re-entry. Those of you who read Relax! You’ll Be More Productive in the Sunday New York Times this week will understand that after having had a restful sabbatical–a real sabbath of the mind–I’m back to feeling with some regularity the pressure of juggled responsibilities. This week has been especially trying because my wife has been travelling for her work. I’ve got lab activities to prepare, quizzes to grade, homework assignments to critique, office hours to keep for eager and inquisitive students, discussions to facilitate along with my not insignificant responsibilities at home as a parent of two teenagers! At times it makes me long for the luxurious hours of reading and freewriting with production of the occasional “blessay.”
But this morning all the effort I put in on behalf of my Vassar students seems worth it; this week they’ve made me especially grateful for the gift that it is to teach them. Thank you Vassar students for responding to the hateful call by the Westboro Baptist Church to protest in our school community. Asreported in the Huffington Post, Vassar students responded to a notice from WBC calling attention to its plan to protest on our campus. Students pledged to raise for The Trevor Project, an organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBT youth, $100 for every minute that WBC plans to protest. At this writing, students have far exceeded their goal; they’ve raised 923% of its $4,500 goal. Yes, you read that right—over 1700 donations have raised more than $40,000 and WBC’s protest here is still weeks away.
As a former board member of the Family Equality Council, one of my chief responsibilities was to raise money for that organization which works to advance the rights of children with LBGTQ parents and our families as a whole. I found it daunting but was told that most money is raised as a result of small donations by ordinary people. With fundraising for The Trevor Project as an WBC counter-protest, Vassar students show how true this is.
Most importantly for me, the Vassar students’ efforts on behalf of LGBTQ people fill my heart with hope and fuel my energy to work diligently for their benefit as well. Reader, may you too take heart from the social justice activism of our youth!
Manly Lance Armstrong January 18, 2013Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in gender.
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Regarding Lance Armstrong’s admission to Oprah Winfrey that he used illegal drugs to win as a cyclist, the L.A. Times (and others) reported:
…surprisingly, he attributed it to his battle with testicular cancer that changed his attitude.
“I was always a fighter,” Armstrong said in the first of the two-part interview that aired Thursday night. “Before my diagnosis, I was a competitor, but not a fierce competitor. Then I said I will do anything I need to do to survive. Then I brought that ruthless, win-at-all-costs attitude into cycling.”
That he attributed his win-at-all costs mentality to his testicular cancer does not surprise me. In order to understand it, we need to bring genderinto the conversation. We need to talk about the culture of masculinity–a culture that celebrates success in competition. But I’ve not heard that from the commentators discussing the subject.
If winning in competition with other males is the societal mark of manhood, then testicles are the biological signifier of masculinity. After all, the question of whether or not a man has “the stuff” to take on a challenge often comes down to the crude question, “Does he have the balls?” After surviving testicular cancer, Lance Armstrong has only one testicle. Might that not explain to some degree at least why he was compelled to cheat so completely in order to be a winner?
I read and loved Michael Chabon’s book Manhood for Amateurs. As a woman, it helped me understand the excruciating pressure that some American men feel about the robustness of their masculinity.
All the brouhaha about Armstrong could be productive if talk centered on the gender component of this fiasco.
Not Standing Still: A Solstice-time Reflection from a “Geologian” December 21, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in contemplative practice, Ecozoic, environmentalism, geologian, meditation, mindfulness practice, science, Thomas Berry.
Tags: environment, liberal arts college, lotus position, science
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Among my favorite cartoons is one my mom gave me by the cartoonist and author of The Soul Support Book, Deb Koffman. Entitled “Sitting with Awareness,” in each of sixteen small square frames Koffman depicts a person sitting in lotus position wearing, what we call in my house “at–homes”– in other words sweatpants. (Click here to visit Koffman’s site — you’ll find the image under “Mindfulness Prints.”) Phrases beneath each frame taken together constitute the following poem. I sure can relate to it, and maybe you can too:
I’m aware of my posture, I’m aware of my knees, I’m aware of my hands, I’m aware of a breeze.
I’m aware of my breath, I’m aware I feel cold, I’ve got a pain in my side, I’m getting old.
The clock is ticking, my eye has a twitch, my stomach is grumbling, my back has an itch.
My foot fell asleep, my pants are too tight, someone is coughing, am I doing this right?
Why do I relate to this poem? Because as I pursue my work as a geoscientist–educator at a liberal arts college — reading, teaching, and striving at the intersections of earth science, gender studies, environmental studies, and history of science — I often wonder, “Am I doing this right?”
In answer to that question, I’m encouraged by news that The University of Virginia received a multimillion dollar gift this year to establish a Contemplative Sciences Center. One purpose of the center will be to promote awareness about the potential benefits of training one’s mind and body. David Germano, a professor of religious studies in the College of Arts and Sciences who will help lead the center commented, ”Hopefully, like drops in the ocean, this training can lead people to greater reflexivity, greater understanding, greater caring, greater efficiency and greater insight.” Huzzah to that.
This means greater validation for the kind of work I try to do as a contemplative educator in my science classes. Not that I doubt the benefits of contemplative practices in higher education. Students continue to write to me post-graduation, amidst real-life struggles about how the contemplative approaches I’ve taught them while they were in college have been among the most sustaining practices they’ve used to deal with everyday living. It’s just that professional scientific societies offer much advice about the fact that geoscientists — as educators and Eaarthlings — must involve ourselves in addressing “critical needs for the 21st century.”
For example, we are urged to prioritize efforts to ensure reliable energy supplies in an increasingly carbon-constrained world; provide sufficient supplies of water; sustain oceans, atmosphere, and space resources; manage waste to maintain a healthy environment; mitigate risk and build resilience from natural and human-made hazards; improve and build needed infrastructure that couples with and uses Earth resources while integrating new technologies; ensure reliable supplies of raw materials; inform the public and train the geosciences workforce to understand Earth processes and address these critical needs. It’s a long and lofty list.
But critically absent from the “critical needs” list are endeavors equally critical to achieving this balance on Earth. For example, for my personal list of critical needs as a science educator, I’ve added the following imperatives:
- Tell a scientific story of the universe that has a mythic, narrative dimension that elevates the story from a prosaic study of data to an inspiring spiritual vision;
- Articulate our dream of the future Ecozoic era, defined as that time when humans will be present to the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner;
- Circumvent the problem of anthropocentrism that is at the center of the devastation we are experiencing;
- Allow acknowledgment that currently, human beings are a devastating presence on the planet; supposedly acting for our own benefit, truthfully we are ruining the conditions for our health and survival as well as that of other living beings;
- Promote hope through contemplation of how tragic moments of disintegration over the past centuries were followed by hugely creative moments of regeneration;
- Recover the capacity for subjective communion with the Earth and identification with the cosmic-Earth-human process as a new mode of interdependence;
- Nourish awareness for a vision of Earth-human development that will allow a sustainable dynamic of the modern world;
- Foster development of intimacy with the natural world.
I developed this list as a result of reading the work of Thomas Berry (1914-2009), a leading scholar, cultural historian, and Catholic priest who spent fifty years writing about our relationship with the Earth. “The universe,” he said, “is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” Berry, had a doctorate in history from The Catholic University of America, studied Chinese language and Chinese culture in China and learned Sanskrit for the study of India and the traditions of religion in India. One of his earliest books was a history of Buddhism. Having established the History of Religions program at Fordham University Berry published numerous prophetic books including The Dream of the Earth, The Great Work, and his last work The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century. This last writing especially fuels my conviction that science done well is also a spritual discipline. Berry called himself a “geologian” and wrote:
Our new acquaintance with the universe as an irreversible developmental process can be considered the most significant religious, spiritual, and scientific event since the emergence of the more complex civilizations some five thousand years ago…. if interpreted properly, the scientific venture could even be one of the most significant spiritual disciplines of these times. This task is particularly urgent, since our new mode of understanding is so powerful in its consequences for the very structure of the planet Earth. We must respond to its deepest spiritual content or else submit to the devastation that is before us (The Sacred Universe 119-120).
The notion that that my geology may be at once both scientific and spiritual has me also adopting the moniker, “geologian.” And that the University of Virginia is moving forward with its Contemplative Sciences Center fuels my hope that engaging science as a spiritual discipline in order to encourage embodied paths to wisdom and social transformation is in itself a worthwhile practice.
We’ve almost arrived at the winter solstice here in the northern hemisphere. On the year’s shortest day, the sun appears to halt in its progressive journey across the sky. From Earth it seems that the sun hardly changes its position on this day, hence the name solstice meaning ”sun stands still.” But despite appearances, the sun is changing its position relative to the Earth inasmuch as, speaking scientifically, the Earth circles the sun each year while it rotates on a tilted axis and creates the changing seasons (the hemisphere that faces the sun receives longer and more powerful exposure to sunlight). For half of each year the North Pole is tilted away from the sun and on the winter solstice the tilt makes the sun seem most faraway. This astronomical event announces the onset of winter in the northern hemisphere.
Speaking as a “geologian” I observe that these are indeed the darkest days of the year. But as I pause, as the sun seems to, at this point in my yearly journey around the sun, I note that in the darkness is the promise of the gradual return of more light. As you circle the sun and participate in the turning of the wheel of the year, what do you notice and to what do you bow?
Senator Rubio: Between Rock of Ages and a Hard Place December 4, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in geologic time.
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Here is my unpublished Letter to the Editor of the New York Times in reference to NIcholas Wade’s piece on Senator Marco Rubio’s statement “I’m not a scientist.”
To the Science Times editor:
Fossil Rock Anthem November 30, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in geologic time, geology.
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For those of you who like your science set to music here’s the latest from “science populariser” Tom McFadden who is on a Fulbright Scholarship at the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago in New Zealand.
The Sexual Politics of Meat Redux November 29, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in feminism, food justice, Vegetarianism/veganism.
“Everything should taste like Bacon.” Really? Bacon lip balm, Baconnaise, Bacon Salt, Bacon MMMvelopes, and all of it Kosher-certified? I’m really confused. I heard this supposed-to-be cute story on NPR this morning about “Baconentrepreneurs”Justin and Dave and their line of Bacon-tasting products, the NPR story focussing specifically on Bacon Shaving Cream.
But I’m not confused on this: even without the shaving cream, it had to be a guy-gimic. And not girly guys, I mean manly men. I went to their website, to the “about” section and found, no surprise, that they characterize themselves as:
… just two regular guys who love grilling and football on Sunday afternoons, eating until we can’t get off the couch and of course, the taste of great bacon. And it’s our dream to make everything taste like bacon.
I know it’s not really bacon in their products and I know it’s supposed to be weird and satirical but I was bugged. Why encourage and try to gratify the bacon-craving? Why exploit the manly man trope? I won’t go on about these fellas.
What I really want to do is call attention to QueerVeganFood.com, a blog by Sarah E. Brown that promotes a vegan diet for the sake of improved personal and planetary health. Queer Vegan Food is a plant-source only site, posting recipes that don’t include animal products of any kind. And it posts truly queer recipes –like chocolate-covered kelp noodles, for instance–in an effort to expand the vegan culinary world beyond vegan cuisine which imitates the non-vegan food world.
NPR should cover that!
Time Travel at Ausable Chasm November 23, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in geologic time.
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Today I traveled back to a time 500 million years ago. At Ausable Chasm I descended 150 feet through layer upon layer of sandstone. Carved by glacial meltwater a mere few thousand years ago, the Ausable river now flows along the bottom of this slot canyon into Lake Champlain.
Citizen-Scientist and Meditator November 16, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in contemplative practice, meditation, mindfulness practice, science.
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A recent Scientific American article reports on a new study published in Annals of Family Medicine that found that adults who practiced mindful meditation or moderately intense exercise for eight weeks suffered less from seasonal ailments during the following winter than those who did not meditate or exercise.
Participants who had meditated missed 76 percent fewer days of work from September through May than did the control subjects while those who had exercised missed 48 percent fewer days during this period. The severity of respiratory ailments also differed between the two groups. Those who had meditated or exercised suffered for an average of five days while the colds of people in the control group lasted eight. According to Scientific American, lab tests confirmed that the self-reported length of colds correlated with the amounts of antibodies in the body, something considered to be a biomarker for the presence of a virus.
I’m not surprised by this report. But I am taken by the fact that, once again, your average meditating Jo, is supposed to feel validated by the fact that science confirms what she already knows to be true. That we have been forced to wait for scientists to confirm observations that are obvious, such as the fact that water that omits odors is contaminated with toxic chemicals has gotten us human beings into quite a few predicaments. I need to look no further than the Hudson valley where I live as the U.S. EPA stops for this season it’s dredging of Hudson River sediments long contaminated with PCBs.
As a person who sits 30-minutes daily, I know that I am quite aware of what is going on with my body. This is not news to anyone who has a regular sitting practice. Thus, when I read the Scientific American report of the study of meditators and those who exercise regularly, I hardly thought it was news. An intuitive explanation for the fact that those who meditated or exercised suffered for a shorter period of time the colds or flus they contracted is easily explained as follows. A person who meditates is much more likely than one who does not to note the fact that she is feeling unwell; such a person then has the opportunity to choose to take the time for rest and renewal and thus shorten the period of illness. This is common sense.
I have no complaint with looking to science for confirmation of reality but I think we need not depend on it to the exclusion of one’s own basic powers of observations, which are of course enhanced by mindfulness practice.
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As a follow-up to my op-ed yesterday, “Science Fiction Science Fact,” I’d like to call to readers’ attention the Op-Ed in today’s New York Times by Orrin Pilkey. Orrin of course hits all the salient points. Blessings to him for never tiring of trying to get people to face the reality of beach erosion.
Significantly for me, the illustration that accompanies Orrin’s op-ed directly answers my final imploring question: “Will an artist please render that scientific fact?” [The fact of inevitable beach erosion]. Graphic artist Henning Wagenbreth has done so. His image shows a dark storm cloud exhaling wind above a stormy sea whose waves tickle the feet of a fleeing beach house that carries with it an uprooted tree and automobile. With words and images, Pilkey and Wagebreth bring science and art together to once again try to capture the reality of today and tomorrow.