Showing posts with label Tim Hunt. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tim Hunt. Show all posts

Friday 26 June 2015

Falling in Love is Unprofessional

"Falling in Love and Crying in the Academic Workplace"

In the wake of Nobel laureate Professor Tim Hunt’s ironic comments on women in science, a draft article entitled “Falling in love and crying in the academic workplace: ‘Professionalism’, gender and emotion” has been circulating in social media.  

Do We Need Gender?

The challenge that this type of article faces, that this one doesn’t quite overcome, is that it/they end up reinforcing the gender stereotypes they ostensibly set out to oppose.  

I used to challenge students to imagine a world where the words (and concepts) “man” and “woman” didn’t exist, and we were all just people: some of us with brown eyes, some with blue, some of us left-handed, some of us right, some with vulvas, others with penises, some capable of bearing children, some better at lifting heavy objects--no absolute, mutually exclusive binary categories necessary.  Intellectually speaking we don’t “need” the categories “men” and “women.”  The intent of this “thought experiment” was to show the intellectual ease with which gender difference could be erased and to demonstrate how, in the abstract, gender is a fragile and superficial concept.  

However, the fact that students never show much interest in the project of gender erasure shows how culturally attached we are to this dichotomy.  If I pushed the discussion, eventually a fastidious female would vociferously declare: “There is no way I want to share a bathroom with a bunch of smelly guys!”  End of discussion.

Stereotypes and Prejudices

The problem isn’t that gender differences and stereotypes exist, the problem, as Judith Butler would point out, is that these differences and stereotypes are policed and enforced.  There is a difference between a stereotype and a prejudice.  A stereotype is an extreme or rigid form of assigning type (“stereo” means “hard” or “firm”), but it usually has some basis in fact when applied in general to a large group of people. A prejudice is assuming and insisting that a stereotype applies to any and all individuals of a type or category.  It is a gender stereotype that men are physically stronger than women.  It is a scientifically verifiable correlation that, on average, people with penises enjoy more muscle mass than do those endowed with vulvas. 

Enforcing Stereotypes

The problem begins when this generalization is enforced on an individual and we tell John that he is failing as a man because he is not stronger than the average woman, and suspect Mary of not being a real woman because she is stronger than the average man and, of course, John and Mary cannot be a couple because she is stronger than he is; nonetheless John could get a construction job, but Mary can’t, etc, etc.  As a society, we extrapolate, police and enforce these stereotypes.

Solving Prejudice

How do we get beyond stereotypes and prevent them from devolving into prejudices?  it is too easy to say that stereotypes and prejudices are products of ignorance.  We are all ignorant and prejudiced in varying degrees.  In a world of Twitter, instant messaging and an up-to-the-minute news cycle we are constantly being called upon to “pre-judge,” our sympathies and outrage being called upon long before anything approaching a comprehensive knowledge of the facts is possible.  The only solution is to question and to withhold judgment until a sufficient number of facts have come our way; to rigorously apply our reading skills and logic to the facts available, and then to cut the world some slack without slipping into apathy.

The other solution when facing stereotypical differences is to consider other possible paradigms, other axes of comparison.  I admired that  in “Falling in Love and Crying in the Academic Workplace,” the author, Rachel Moss, at least temporarily shifted the discussion to “professionalism.”  Falling in love is unprofessional, mostly because the root of the word “amateur” is “amour,” “to love.”  Even in the study of theatre and drama, I have found ample reason to prefer amateur productions and performances over the professional, though the value system runs in the other direction.  It is not without reason that we describe prostitution as a profession.   It has its rules, and one of them is not falling in love.   

How to Talk about Cultural Differences

In my research I have tried to talk about some of the same differences that Rachel Moss discusses in her article.  I tried to talk about them as the differences between oral and visual cultures (following from Havelock, Ong and McLuhan), and when that didn’t quite work I turned to what John Vernon called “garden” and “map” culture.   Ultimately we have to admit that what we are talking about is “human” culture versus “machine” culture and our society shows an ever-increasing admiration for humans who behave like machines.

"You Fall in Love with Them, They Fall in Love with You"

On that note, a concluding word about Tim Hunt.  Apparently, he has two daughters who love his cooking, but I’ll bet he’s seen the girls cry when he criticized them.   His wife, Professor Mary Collins, was once his student.  So when he said the trouble with girls in the lab is that “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you” could he have been thinking about himself and his wife?  What an amateur!

Tuesday 23 June 2015

After “the Death of the Author” It Only Takes 39 Words to End an Academic Career

39 Words versus curing cancer

It only takes 39 words to end an academic career even if you are a Nobel laureate in physiology . . . or maybe it’s because you are a Nobel laureate.  The sexist comments of the average smuck don’t go viral on Twitter.

I can’t help imagining some futuristic Wikipedia article on “the cure of cancer.”  It would go something like this: “Professor Tim Hunt’s work on cell division proved instrumental in developing the cure for cancer, however he became notorious and his career was ended in 2015 for his off-the-cuff remarks on women in science at a conference in Korea.”

The 39 words in question

According to The Guardian these are the 39 words which Professor Hunt uttered:

The Danger of irony

His wife, Professor Mary Collins, an immunologist, concurs with most of the critical commentary that “It was an unbelievably stupid thing to say.”  Hunt himself confessed apologetically,  “I was very nervous and a bit confused but, yes, I made those remarks – which were inexcusable – but I made them in a totally jocular, ironic way.”  (I’ve already covered the problems with irony but if you need a refresher see  Do No Harm Part II: Avoid Irony).

The Context is the meaning

No-one is denying that Professor Hunt said what he said, but my reason for commenting is that his words are being so widely reported and repeated out of context.  The context is the meaning.  The only way to understand what an action or an utterance means is to consider the context.  In saying this I know I am indirectly defending “the bad guys” (and "girls"):  the politician who complains of being quoted “out of context” and the adulterer who claims that the sex “didn’t mean anything.”  The truth is that politicians are frequently quoted out of context and their words attributed meanings that are different from, worse than or in complete opposition to their intentions.  And yes, a single act of coitus can be as meaningless as friction.  The only way to know what sex means is to consider the context, and the spectrum of possibilities range from criminal sadism to love.

To Read is to put a text in its proper context

For at least a generation now (the Twitter generation?), we have been training university students to read out of context.  As a professor of literature I thought of my job as teaching my students to be the best possible readers, to be able to analyze and re-synthesize some of the best works that have ever been written.  Reading well meant having a thorough understanding and appreciation of the various contexts within which a work could be read.  As time marches on the new meanings of old works are constantly changing but if we care about meaning, we have to consider the many contexts within which literature is/was written and read.

The "Death of the author" is the death of meaning

However, I noted with chagrin that many of my postmodernist professors and colleagues were quickly and firmly attached to Roland Barthes’ proclamation of “the Death of the Author.”  Fixed meanings were no longer possible, according to Barthes, because professional readers (i.e., postmodern professors) no longer considered the author (who she was, her context or intentions) when interpreting a literary work.  Looking at the author to determine the meaning of a text simply wasn’t done. Whether Barthes was reporting what he witnessed around him or was announcing what should and had to be, on the ground in university classrooms the idea of considering the life of the author as part of the study of a literary work had become so passé that it would be radical to consider this approach.

The "Death of the author" is power grab by pro readers

To my knowledge no-one has ever pointed out how self serving the “Death of the Author” was for university professors.  In the new postmodern context, meaning no longer resided with the author but with the reader, and if you wanted to know what a literary work “really” meant (even though such an absolute was never possible) you had to turn to a professional reader, a professor of literature.  It was clearly a power grab, but no-one seemed to notice--or was it that no-one cared?

The precedents  and procedures for quoting Professor Hunt out of context have been established  and taught.  Everyone is invited to posture self-righteously by attacking him and his un-contextualized utterances.

Tim Hunt is the context of his remarks

When that gets old we might consider challenging the ”Death of the Author,” and taking to heart Professor Collins’ observation that what her husband said “could be taken as offensive if you didn’t know Tim”  and her assurance that “he is not sexist. I am a feminist, and I would not have put up with him if he were sexist.”

What are the proper contexts within which we should read Professor Hunt’s utterance?  My counsel is that we need to be conscious that we are reading different contexts and, in this case,Tim Hunt is one important context of the utterance, not the other way around.  We won’t get the meaning of Tim Hunt by reading the 39 words he uttered in Korea. 

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