Daily Archives: December 30, 2005

Reading Lolita in Washington

USA Today reports that Azar Nafisi, author of the best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books — much of which focuses on the secret book club Nafisi held in her home in Tehran after losing her university job — is planning to launch an international online book discussion group.

In a world that she says has become too politicized, she wants to create a “domain of imagination that is not political. … Read Shakespeare or (Margaret) Atwood. We don’t know if they are Republicans.”

Details of her online book club are being worked out. By spring, she hopes to organize free online discussions about books and authors.

The discussions, Nafisi says, will focus on writers who initially may seem unrelated. However, they can be discussed as part of larger themes.

For example, she hopes to contrast Jon Stewart’s satirical textbook, America (the Book), with Allan Bloom’s Shakespeare on Love and Friendship, to give the rest of the world a taste of American diversity. Or, the club will compare Atwood, the Canadian novelist, with human-rights activist Samantha Power and their approaches to human rights.

A book club “is a gold mine in terms of creating ideas” and getting people to communicate, she says. That’s true both in Iran, where books that are considered subversive are banned, and in the USA, where “everything is so polarized that you have very little room for debate and understanding.”

My first reaction: it’s a great idea. One of the problems with today’s public discourse, it seems ot me, is that it is so focused on politics and political issues, including personal issues turned political — to the detriment of all the spheres of thought that deal with the vast aspects of the human condition that exist outside or beyond politics. It’s entirely possible, for instance, to read, enjoy, and derive insights from the novels of Dostoyevsky while finding his politics (which were extremely reactionary and bigoted) abhorrent — or knowing nothing about them. Sadly, too many of the institutions that should be promoting the study, understanding, and love of literature as a source of both truths and pleasures that transcend the present moment are busy politicizing it instead, with English departments as the worst culprits.

I once stumbled on a literature discussion board about a month after the 2000 election. While the board looked interesting, there were threads filled with so much anger and hatred toward Bush voters — perceived in the most stereotypical terms as ignorant bigoted rednecks — that I had no desire to stick around. (Even though I did not vote for Bush.) A woman I know who did vote for Bush, despite disagreeing with him on many issues including same-sex marriage, told me that she left another online book club for the same reason. An online book club tolerant toward political differences sounds like a great idea.

One of the things I loved about Reading Lolita in Tehran was Nafisi’s evocation — and creation — of a world in which books mattered: book, ideas, the life of the mind, the inner life created by reading. It was also a world in which people of vastly different politics and ideologies could meet, and find a common language, in literature’s realm. If Nafisi can recreate that, more power to her.

My second reaction: If Nafisi wants a nonpolitical book club, it’s odd that one of the first projects she mentions is a comparison between Margaret Atwood (who, by the way, we very definitely know is not a Republican) and Samantha Power, not a “literary” writer but a political one who has written about genocide prevention. At the same time, I like the fact that Nafisi’s vision for her book discussion groups includes popular culture (Jon Stewart) as well as “high culture.” It will be interesting to see how this one works out.

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More on women, families, and careers

Tuesday’s Boston Globe has an article about women in science dealing with the career/family balance. Highlights:

As a graduate student at Harvard University and also a mother, [Deborah] Rud hopes to inspire female undergraduates to pursue both a career in science and a family. The trouble is, she’s still figuring out if she herself can have both.

Rud nearly dropped out of her doctorate program after she gave birth, and she still fears that her family would suffer if she devoted herself to an academic research career.

The career choices of young women like Rud will to a great extent determine whether their generation will approach equality with men in university science departments.

In Rud’s field, biology, women are 46 percent of the doctorate recipients from the nation’s top 50 biology departments. But they make up only 30 percent of assistant professors and 15 percent of full professors. A similar ”leaky pipeline” is seen in other sciences, as well. A sizable number of the women who train in the sciences never enter the academic profession — and the desire for more family time is a major reason.

”I don’t know how many tenured female professors there are who have children and are a really big part of their children’s lives,” said Rud, 27. ”I don’t know of any who go to soccer games and sometimes pick up their kids from school. I don’t need to be there for all of it — frankly it’s a little mind-numbing — but I want to be there for some of it.”

Rud is a little unusual in having given birth to her first child in graduate school, but her soul-searching was echoed by more than two dozen other young female scientists in interviews with the Globe. Many of them are preoccupied with the question of whether to stay in academia at all, or whether to settle for less prestigious instructor positions.

These women, most of them studying in the booming field of life sciences, often describe working in laboratories where women are a robust minority, or even a majority, of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. Few of them say they have experienced much discrimination. The primary barrier, they say, is the conflict between lab and family under the grueling demands of today’s academic culture.

….

Princeton University president Shirley M. Tilghman, a molecular biologist, has spoken about how in her field, women are nearly half of new doctorate recipients, but only a quarter of faculty job applicants at top-tier universities.

”It does not take much imagination to recognize that the drop coincides with prime child-bearing years,” Tilghman said in a speech this year at Columbia University.

The typical scientist is 32 by the time he or she earns a doctorate. In most cases in the life sciences, graduates then have to spend several more years as low-paid postdoctoral fellows, or ”postdocs,” before getting their first academic jobs.

In a 2000 survey of University of California at Berkeley postdocs, most of whom were scientists, 60 percent of married women with children said they were considering leaving academia.

Rud’s adviser, James A. DeCaprio, said few of the graduate students and postdocs he has trained, male or female, have gone on to academic research positions. Those who have made it tend to work about 70 hours a week. The rest end up choosing business or law school, the pharmaceutical industry, or teaching in less prestigious positions.

”If you work 80 hours a week, you will be twice as successful” than if you work 40 hours, he said, explaining that more hours translates directly into more experiments, and more discoveries. ”They move the science along faster than the competition.”

DeCaprio called Rud smart and creative, and said she has ”as good a chance as anybody to be extraordinarily successful.” What happens will depend mostly on how many hours she is able, or willing, to put in at her bench.

Raised in Pasadena, Calif., by a single mother, Rud always knew she wanted children. Her love for science came later. Today, Rud gushes about the elegance of biological systems — how clever viruses are, for example. ”It’s like an art critic discussing a work of art,” said her husband, Ryan Rud, an English teacher at English High School in Boston.

Still, like many of her peers, Rud found herself in graduate school uncertain about what she wanted to do with her life, except that she and her husband wanted to start their family early.

Her pregnancy brought her confusion to the boiling point. She worried about the hours it would take to succeed — hours away from her family.

At the same time, she wasn’t sure if she loved the repetitive work at the lab bench, altering the salt levels in experiments, for example. And she couldn’t imagine taking a job in a pharmaceutical company lab, where she’d have better hours but feel like ”a drone.”

A six-week maternity leave ballooned into a year-long leave of absence, although she worked as a teaching assistant this fall.

Ultimately, Rud decided to return to school. When she joins her new viral oncology lab in January, she hopes to work weekdays from about 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Her thought now is that she’ll probably pursue a career that’s mostly teaching, for which she has an obvious gift. But if she doesn’t put in 70-hour weeks, she has no idea whether she could still get a tenure-track job at a liberal arts college, or whether her only academic option would be a low-paid instructor position. Maybe, she thinks, she’ll go into patent law.

Rud doesn’t blame her struggles on Harvard. Still, a growing chorus of scientists says that the responsibility for this lab-vs.-life conflict lies with institutions. Recently, the presidents of nine leading universities, including Harvard and MIT, pledged to do more to make academic careers ”compatible with family caregiving responsibilities.”

That will mean changing expectations about work hours and offering more support to families. The Ruds could not afford Harvard day care. They get by on their salaries only because Jackson attends the subsidized center for babies of teenage mothers at Ryan’s high school.

A Harvard task force on women in science, convened after Summers’ comments on women, recommended paid maternity leave and child-care scholarships for doctoral students. It is not yet clear whether Harvard will adopt these recommendations.

A survey of people who received Harvard doctorates between 1997 and 1999 found that three years later, slightly more women than men who studied natural sciences remained in academia. It’s a result that cheers Harvard officials, although they can’t explain the difference.

The article raises some interesting questions.

(1) Is the “leaky pipeline” problem as bad as the article suggests? If women make up 46% of new Ph.D.’s in biology (from the nation’s top 50 schools) but only 15% of full professors, surely this is at least in part a generational problem. It would be helpful, for instance, to know the average age for biology professors.

(2) We are told that 60% of the female postdocs at Berkeley who are married and have children are considering leaving academia. What are the comparable figures for postdocs who are single (male and female), or married without children? And what about men? Is this purely a work-family issue, or also an issue of the work environment in science?

(3) I have no doubt that (for whatever reason) women in science are more concerned with issues of balancing work and family than men are, but shouldn’t at least some attention be paid to men in this discussion? A friend of mine who is working toward a science Ph.D., as is her husband, makes it very clear that they are both concerned with how to balance work and family once they have children. Surely, they can’t be unique.

(4) I’m not sure that the work environment in science can ever be made “family-friendly” for those who are interested in high-level scientific achievement. I’m not sure that the idea of science as a stern taskmaster, of the scientist as somewhat aloof from the real world and living in world of his — or her — own, is merely a cultural “stereotype.” Serious scientific discovery, I think, probably does require a tremendous amount of dedication and focus. But should there be more opportunities for people to teach and to do lower-level scientific work, perhaps teamwork, without having to put in 70 hours a week?

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