Saturday, September 13, 2014

How a Conversation about "Tampon Run" Turned Into a Commentary on Academia

Because nobody should ever settle for just Temple Run, two high school students have developed a new game called Tampon Run. Basically, the player shoots tampons at enemies (who steal tampons) and must collect extra tampons so that she doesn't run out. If she runs out, it's game over (ain't that the truth.) The point of the game is to normalize female reproductive health rather than gun violence, which I think is pretty neat, at least. 

My friend Laris sent me a link to the above article this morning, and then several Snapchats of her high scores. Then, we started brainstorming ideas for improvements, creating the opportunity for a real-life, estrogen-laden menstruation gaming experience:

As per usual, that escalated quickly. Navigating our own bodies is one thing; navigating academia is another. I actually ran into something similar to that last situation a few months ago at my current graduate institution, when I received what I believe was supposed to be to be a high compliment after a perfectly mediocre (in my opinion) presentation. I was congratulated on my ability to speak in front of a room full of (here, I would have said "experts," but what really was said was:) "males." And then I was immediately confused, because I had apparently stepped into a time machine that transported me 200 years into the past.

If anybody is capable of coding the ingenious upgrades to Tampon Run, it's Laris. She can code much better than I can. But since she's a bright girl capable of designing her own future, she decided to pursue Nursing instead of Engineering. And after I told her about my ridiculous encounter with a well-intended "compliment," she told me that as a nurse she is commonly encouraged to behave timidly when interacting with doctors. Basically, she's been told not to display a sense of confidence, and to speak apologetically because she's probably wasting the valuable time of the "he-doctor" as a lowly "she-nurse." And yes, those gender pronouns are actually used in her courses. This begs the question: why would an educator ever perpetuate a culture of gender-based insecurity in the medical field, especially with nurses? Nurses, who of course are female as well as male, are invaluable resources to doctors, who of course are male as well as female. I asked her if she laughs it off like I try to, and she said that it pisses her off, but she doesn't say anything. That's generally how I feel. I'm not in imminent danger, so it doesn't seem to be worth an uproar.

Now, at my current graduate institution, our Title IX investigation has been completed, with training now required for all employees. Apparently, we did "pretty well." My male colleagues, struggling to understand how one could perform "pretty well" on something as heavy as a Title IX investigation, asked me what I thought it meant. I stated, bluntly: "Quiet women." We all laughed, of course, but I think it's true! Speaking for myself, I feel relatively safe in the lab (I mean, as safe as a woman with a decade-long struggle with PTSD can reasonably feel.) I'm not complaining. Unless somebody is in danger, I won't; my style of advocacy is private and personal until somebody's well-being is at stake.

As of June of this year, 64 colleges and universities are under investigation for Title IX violations; namely, the improper handling of sexual violence cases. In light of recent popular support of the feminist movement, I've been finding myself feeling a bit like a "feminist hipster" (feminipster?) of sorts. Like, I was totally feminist before it was cool, because I was handling these sexual violence cases at my Big Ten undergraduate institution before it became socially acceptable to discuss them. It seems silly to think about how much things have changed over the past five years, but they have. And, for the better, no less. 

I was never much of a protester. I'll be honest; while my friends from the MSU Sexual Assault Program were protesting our basketball team because of rape allegations against two of the players, I was in the Izzone praying to our basketball deity that they would sink their free throws. I had to separate the two. I couldn't handle them in tandem.

I think that's how I deal with things like this; I compartmentalize my life. My undergraduate experience was pretty fairly split between physics and advocacy. My friends in our galactic astrophysics lectures, for example, knew what it meant when I had two phones with me; one was my phone, and one was the "rape phone." If I had to slip out of class, it was because somebody needed the resources that I had to give. On occasion, my late nights studying at IHOP were interrupted by the medical pager and an ER visit. Because my course load was so heavy, these instances were rare; however, they remain to be such a huge part of my life.

This is why, I think, I'm often caught off guard when people ask me how I navigate being a woman in my field. Oddly enough, the MSU physics building was a place where I felt very safe as a female, and as I mentioned I feel just as safe at Clemson. This isn't the case for all institutions, and I certainly can't speak for all female scientists at Michigan State or Clemson, but it is the case for me. I have found that my handling of sexual violence cases on campus has very much diluted the off-handed and infrequent remarks of my male colleagues. I could laugh them off. I could roll my eyes. I could out-compete them for research positions.

But that's another thing, isn't it? How did I really land those research positions? My mother seemed to think that part of it was due to my gender; that these institutions somehow needed a quota of women in order to keep their funding, or something. Title IX and Affirmative Action and, basically, another back-handed "compliment" that made me feel like I'd cheated an impostor who didn't actually deserve the position. 

I learned loads of things during those positions, though. I disappointed nobody (except perhaps myself) and I've fostered my network that I now treat as my central nervous system. There has been no shortage of hard work, mistakes, falling, getting back up, and personal growth. I sat down with Jocelyn Bell Burnell one evening, and unraveled all of my insecurities over a cup of tea. I told her that I didn't feel like I deserved my success and she responded by laughing, calling me a "typical woman," and telling me that I was doing it all right. 

I hope I can believe her, soon. I also hope that academia evolves into a place where one's minority status is simply irrelevant. We are here to learn. We are here to do the work. We are here to advance the field because we want to advance the field; not because we're male or female or otherwise. Certainly the female experience is different from the male experience in life, but they are even more certainly permitted to run parallel to one another. What academia needs, what we need, is more grace. More encouragement. More collaboration. If we as a scientific community (or any community) would focus on the work being done rather than the minority status of the worker, then maybe the work would actually get done. 

Everybody, just let it be. And let us, no matter who we are, keep learning.

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