Category Archives: Uncategorized

decisions: personal vs. professional

why is there always conflict between the personal and the professional? why is it that in this society the professional is valued so much more over the personal? why is it that if i make a good professional choice while sacrificing the personal, that’s ok. but if i make a good personal choice while sacrificing the professional, people want to lose respect for you or tell you all the ways you’re making a terrible decision?

i am applying for jobs in academia with a very specific kind of career track in mind (teaching, little to no research) that further narrows what is available to me. i got a job offer that, if i took it, would be a good professional move to make. but, after much agonizing, i’ve decided that i can’t take it because it’s in a place that feels like personal death. i realize that is melodramatic, but i have yet to come up with any other way to put it. i’ve visited this place a number of times and every time i get the same feeling from the place. it just never sits well with me. it depresses me. i feel there is little there for me. i have two friends there who enjoy it, and i enjoy my time there with them, but we are so very different in our needs.

i am a black, queer woman. i am resigned to the fact that, as a scientist, i will be one of few (if not the only one) in almost any academic job i take. that is not new to me. i did it/lived it all through undergrad and grad school. but to also live in a place where i am one of so few (if not the only) is, over time, soul crushing. i did that as well, all through undergrad, all through grad school.

i am a black, queer, city-loving woman who moved to dc from southern california last year for work. it took awhile to adjust – moving away from everyone/everything i love. it took awhile to meet people (and i’m still working on that). i still have ups and downs. but i have come to really appreciate this place. it is the first time in about 10 years where i have lived somewhere where i feel like i fit in. and not just because i’m black and there are many black people here. granted, i like the fact that i can see many people who look like me, though there are times when i actually can stick out like a sore thumb among a group of black people like i stick out in group of white people. but the fact that i’ve met so many black people across the spectrum is nice. the fact that i’ve met, interacted, befriended so many black academics and intellectuals. the fact that i’ve met, interacted, befriended amazing queer black women and other queer women/women of color. the fact that there is community here for me…it does so much for me on a personal, emotional, soul level.

i also appreciate the urbanness of it. i grew up in urban la, and then the somewhat less urban las vegas for a few years. city-life beats through my veins. i left it for school, but it is so good to be back. i appreciate the culture here. i appreciate the diversity. i’ve missed it. i’ve yearned for it. it feels like coming home.

all of this, all of this is why i cannot move to the place where the job is offered. there is none of this. it may be there in places where i can’t see. i am fully aware that it’s hard to pass judgement on a place where i have not lived. i know there will be times when i’ll need to take that chance…but i can’t take the risk of going and not finding what i know is scant chance to be there when i have found a place that is giving me life. dc is like healing to me. while dc has it’s own issues as a city (and there are things i have issue with – it is by no means perfect), it is giving me the space to come back to myself after so long away from all the things i didn’t even realize were necessary for my survival.

i know that the job i ultimately want (professor at a liberal arts college) is most likely going to have me in a location where i am one of the few; not very many of them exist in/near diverse, urban areas. i know that and am somewhat prepared for that future. because i know that, i feel like i need this time here in dc. i need a couple more years of being happy where i am. where i feel there is potential. where i feel like i can live the fullness of myself. i don’t think i could voluntarily move myself away from this place i am now to a place that is such the opposite of what i need, even if it is just for a few years to get experience and then move on. maybe if it was somewhere else. but not to this place where i see so few options. this place where, when i mention it to my friends of color all adamantly tell me not to go, that it’s not worth it. where on one of my visits i saw someone driving in the car next to me with a confederate flag hanging from their rearview mirror.

but people have a hard time understanding this. my academic friends have a hard time understanding this. this is especially true in a field where most of my peers are, and will be, white and heterosexual. moving around to less than ideal places is an accepted part of the process. we are made to believe that the professional needs to come before the personal to get anywhere, and making decisions with the personal as the basis of our argument is not valid. i am often left feeling like my needs are things that can be sacrificed.

i understand that sacrifices will need to be made during this process. but how long must i sacrifice? at what point is it ok not to? at what point will it be ok to live my life the way i need to live it, even if just for a little while?

owning my narrative, or how/why i became a marine biologist

I came across this blog post about #IamScience today and it made me reflect on how I became a scientist, more specifically a marine biologist. There are so many different ways we can get to where we are in science, but only so many accepted narratives. I never felt comfortable sharing with most people in my field why I was interested in marine biology, largely because it never seemed like an accepted or respected narrative. My story was never their story. Not even close. The majority of the people I met in undergrad and grad school who were also planning on being marine biologists/scientists had these similar narratives:

– they grew up largely by the ocean
– they went tidepooling often
– they went out on boat trips often
– they had even lived on houseboats
– they loved the organisms they saw while fishing
– they loved the organisms they saw while surfing
– they loved the organisms they saw while snorkeling or SCUBA diving
– they had scientist parents or their parents were academics
– they wanted to be like Jacques Cousteau
– they loved going to the aquarium and went often
– they volunteered/interned at aquaria
– they were white

I heard these narratives so often that I never wanted to share my story. But recently I’ve started to feel differently about that. Recently I’ve begun to reclaim my narrative…

I grew up in LA. West LA. Inglewood. Crenshaw. Culver City. Hawthorne/Lawndale…We moved around a lot, but always within LA. As a little black girl I went to the beach, mostly in Marina Del Rey. Didn’t see tidepools, didn’t see fish, just flat beaches with lots of people. My parents took me to SeaWorld when I was ~6 and I loved it. I remember the sea stars and sea urchins in the touch tanks the most. But that is all. We never went to aquariums, never went to see tidepools, did not go out on boats (with the exception of my aunt’s wedding that took place on a boat).

When I was little, I wanted to be an artist. I loved to paint, I loved to color, I loved to draw. I liked to make things that were aesthetically pleasing. This was how I felt until I was about 9, when I decided, after learning my mother was going to become a paralegal, that I was going to be a lawyer when I grew up. This seemed practical. More practical than an artist.

We didn’t really go to the beach much anymore, if at all. I spent my time in the house, playing, reading, watching TV. Or I played outside, ran around, rode bikes or skated around concrete jungles with other black kids my age. Played hide-and-go-seek in gated apartment complexes. Flipped on old, abandoned mattresses, hopped over old cars and fences, and watched my boy friends (not boyfriends) jump gates and rooftops, pretending to run away from the po-po. Practice for the future, my one friend would say to me.

One day, when I was eleven, I was at my grandmother’s house after school, watching Bill Nye the Science Guy and Reading Rainbow like I always did. Everyday. I loved science shows and loved Bill Nye. I also loved reading and had been watching Reading Rainbow for years. But this day was different. This day, LeVar Burton was talking about something I hadn’t heard of before. The entire episode highlighted kids/youth books related to the ocean and LeVar was on a boat being taught about marine organisms by marine biologists. I was fascinated. Completely mesmerized by all the different creatures and all the different things the scientists were studying. LeVar and the scientists talked about the importance of studying the organisms and keeping the ocean free of pollution. At that moment I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. I wanted to be a marine biologist.

After that, whenever anyone asked what I wanted to be, I said marine biologist. People didn’t always understand why, especially when we moved to Las Vegas (i.e. the desert) after I started high school, but they thought it was cool. I could never really say what made me choose this path. I didn’t really feel that saying Reading Rainbow was a legitimate reason. Nor did I have any other reasonable reason, like frequenting the aquarium, or knowing a lot about fish. So I’d say I liked watching ocean-themed nature shows and wanted to learn more about marine life, which was true, but never felt that was a good enough reason.

Fast-forward to college where every marine biology major was a) white and b) gave one of the aforementioned listed reasons for wanting to be a marine biology major. And there was me, who hadn’t been to an aquarium since I was a little kid, who didn’t dive or snorkel, who hadn’t taken a marine biology class in high school, who hadn’t spent family camping trips along the coast, etc. Who, unlike my classmates, hadn’t seen many of the marine organisms we saw in labs in person before. Up to that point I’d only seen them on tv or in books. The worst part was when someone in some marine/aquatic bio class would make reference to Jacques Cousteau. Everyone would ooh and aah, or give that nod of understanding while I had no idea who this person was. All I could do, given the context, was assume he was someone important in marine biology and the inspiration for many in those classes and the professors. But it was one of those things I knew I could never ask about. Doing so would prove that I didn’t belong in those classes, prove that I had no business trying to be a scientist, let alone a marine biologist…I nodded in pseudo-understanding along with them.

We went on a camping trip for my invertebrate zoology class. I, unlike most of my peers, had never gone camping before. Luckily, I had a friend in the class who helped me out with this. Made me feel less out of place. I was grateful for that. Grateful because I spent a lot of time in undergrad trying to remind myself that there was nothing wrong with having such a different background from my peers and that I was just as capable.

I went to grad school to further study marine biology. I didn’t SCUBA dive like most of my peers. I’m actually still not certified as it wasn’t imperative for my research. I also did a lot of outreach and during meetings with the organizers, often listened to them talk about those “poor, urban kids” who didn’t have many outdoor experiences and how it was a “shame” that “those kids” didn’t know x or y about nature/the environment/oceans. These organizers who grew up going camping, hiking, going out on boats, tidepooling, snorkeling. I remember loathing those meetings because I was one of “those kids” and did not feel as deficient as they were making them/us seem. There was much we had gained from growing up in urban areas. However, it was evident there was little room for genuinely appreciating varied (read non-urban and non-white) upbringings and backgrounds.

Amid questions of “what made you decide to go to college? and grad school?” which were thinly veiled microaggressions, I would be asked the “what inspired you to study marine biology? when did I know?” Again, I could not tell the truth, so I always made up something, or gave a vague answer about always being interested in the ocean. How could I be a legitimate PhD student with Reading Rainbow as my inspiration?

What I didn’t realize then was that I could be completely legitimate. That I was completely legitimate. That that little urban black girl who only saw marine organisms on tv or in books could grow up and be a legitimate marine biologist. That she could hopefully some day soon teach other people about topics in marine biology. I didn’t realize that it was ok to have a different trajectory, even if everyone around you didn’t make you feel like it was ok. You never really hear the stories that don’t include the typical marine biologist precursors. So here is my non-typical story. It could be that my narrative is more typical than I think, but you’d never know given the prevalence of the accepted general narrative.

Sometimes I wonder where I’d be if I hadn’t seen that one episode of Reading Rainbow. What would have happened had LeVar Burton not showcased marine biologists? I feel like I owe him a thank you. For exposing a city kid like me, and all those other kids, to that amazing career. I’m also no longer shy about admitting that it was his show that inspired me.

queering the academic job path

The past couple of months have been filled with the usual: thinking about what I’m going to do with the rest of my life. After much thought i’ve decided that i’m going to enter the job market.

The “job market.” The phrase has always seemed weird to me; I don’t like it for some reason. Maybe because it implies that I’m going shopping for something, when really, I’m the one being shopped for. And even that implies I have more agency than I actually have in this process. I imagine search committees picking me up off the shelf, turning me over, reading the label. Does she fit all of the requirements? Does she have all the qualifications? Is she the right fit? Does she have what it takes??

To backup a little, I did spend a fair amount of time thinking about my other options based on the things I was interested in–outreach science education, taking science to the community, increasing the engagement and participation of youth of color in science, etc. but phd’s in science don’t really prepare you for that so I tried to think up a path. (A friend of mine recently termed this making of a new path, “bushwhacking.” I thought that was perfect.) Maybe working at a science center/science museum? Maybe finding a nonprofit dedicated to science outreach? Maybe figuring out how to create my own for future?…

This all proved to be pretty difficult. Difficult because I either had no hirable skills, didn’t fit the position, or I was overqualified due to the three letters after my name. And, to be fair, there was only so much of a pay decrease i could handle.… After much agonizing and lack of direction I decided to focus my energies on trying to find a job that I would actually qualify for or that I could actually do for a little while.

I’ve always wanted to teach, so it’s not like this was a less desirable option. It’s just that I wanted to change the world (insert stars in my eyes, unicorns running in fields of rainbows and care bear stares). The disillusionment/ambivalence I’ve been experiencing with aspects of my current position made me feel like I needed to get back to the basics immediately. To put theory into practice. To not just research how students learn, or theorize about how different pedagogical methods can benefit students of color etc., but to get out there and make it happen. I thought jumping directly into museums/outreach/nonprofits would take me there.

Not so much. Or at least not right now. That’s the conclusion I came to. I figure teaching for a while will a) give me teaching experience and b) give me time to figure it out (in all that spare time that professors have).

The flipside of this is that finding an academic job… will give me a job (hopefully). Doing something that I want to do. One that will be less transitory than a postdoc…although I am applying for teaching postdoc too, but that’s because as a science phd I’m trained to to do nothing but science research, not even teach.… I’m ready to live somewhere somewhat more permanently. To begin trying to create community. To have a life.

Now the dilemma is this: how does a baby-faced, relatively shiny new science phd with a postdoc in science education with little teaching experience find a professorship where she has no research requirement, or if research is necessary then science education research? This question then becomes how do I make this science department like me even though I’m trying to offer them something they don’t want? Most science departments want a scientist who had a science postdoc and will do science research. And I can’t work in an education department because I don’t have a phd in education. I thought my ticket would be liberal arts colleges. I’ve always wanted to teach at a liberal arts college; it would be my ideal job. Who knew most of them also wanted you to have a significant science research program?

Here’s to queering the academic path, I suppose. It’s back to bushwhacking, yes, but in this sense, I’m ok with it.

So I spend my days trying to remind myself how awesome I am, trying to write the best science education research plan a biology department has ever seen, and crafting an application that makes them wonder why I’m not already working there being ridiculously innovative in their classrooms and doing this amazing science ed thing they hadn’t even thought to do.

a token for your thoughts

A friend of mine recently told me that me being who I am, I will have interview invitations left and right and will have employers throwing themselves at me. There was a small pause between all she said before and “being who I am.” The silence read – black woman scientist. She made this allusion multiple times in our conversation. While I know this to be true, have known it for some time, I still don’t know how I feel about it.

Yes, people like me don’t come around that often. There aren’t a lot of black women scientists, especially those in the field I’m in. I just don’t know how comfortable I feel being commodified. Granted, by getting various degrees we turn ourselves into “commodities” almost by default, trying to build skill sets that will make us the most marketable, getting those pieces of paper that “prove” we are readily employable. Then, the application and interview processes puts us at the mercy of academic institutions who will sift through us, pluck us out of applicant pools, examine and test us, and see if we’re shiny enough to place amongst all the other pieces/people in their collection/institution. This happens for most everybody applying to academic jobs. But I feel the process takes on another level as a woman of color, and yet another level as a woman of color in STEM fields. Especially when the job ads include a line encouraging “women/minorities” to apply (I will refrain from the “ain’t i a woman?”-esque statement I always want to make when I read “women and minorities”).

Say I apply to a job with that encouragement and I get chosen to interview or get the job. Was it because I’m awesome and fit the job requirements, or was it because I’m a woman of color? I imagine that their internal dialogues would read like “wouldn’t that be great to add to the our collection of science professors, a sparkly woman of color? We’d get a twofer!” I believe this is a fair assumption. Now, I know I wouldn’t get an interview or job without meeting the requirements, but my WOC status certainly plays a role, especially at majority white institutions.

So how comfortable do I feel with this? On the one hand, I want to feel like I got the interview/offer/position on merit. I want to know that I moved forward/ahead because of what I’ve done in my work, or what I can offer. Not because my shear existence would diversify their department/school. But on the flip side, I want to do just that – diversify that department, diversify this field, add some color. Show that I cannot be ignored. Show that I cannot be discounted. Show my face and show that I exist in the academy.

It’s interesting because I almost shy away from using the word “merit” or from saying I want to know that I move ahead based on my work. I even hesitated before I wrote it above. I say this because I am reminded of a conversation I had with my mother where I was expressing this to her. To paraphrase, she said she could see where I was coming from, but asked “how many of you are out there?” How many of us have gotten that far? How many of us are doing big things? So you don’t exactly know the motives of the people/institutions that help move you up or forward, but does it matter? At the end of the day you get to where you want to go, regardless of why you got the chance, and do what you know you can do, regardless of what they think you are or aren’t capable of doing.

It’s this constant tug-of-war with feelings of being tokenized vs. proudly being. As I get older I move away from the “I want to know I got x because of my work…” thinking/feeling, especially as I’m constantly reminded that many things in this country don’t work on a meritocracy. But even as I move away from it, I have to admit that the feeling still lingers. Not so much the feeling of getting ahead on merit, but the fear of being the token.

that g word

Having recently moved to DC, there was only a matter of time before I tackled the topic of gentrification. Since it’s such a complex issue, I’m sure this will be the first post of many.

I feel that in the year prior to my moving to DC I spent a fair amount of time thinking about this phenomenon and wondering where I would end up living and what the neighborhood around me would look like.

Because I wasn’t going to bring my car from the west coast I wanted to live somewhere that was either close to work, or close to transportation that would get me there. Being somewhat near a grocery store would also be nice. I also wanted to live somewhere that was relatively safe. As I was going to be a woman with no vehicle walking home at night, this was pretty important.

But most important was the price. Having just become a postdoc and graduating off of my graduate income (which, I admit was pretty decent compared to the average thanks to a nice fellowship the last three years), I had more income at my disposal. Granted, I’m a postdoc so the amount of money only goes so far. But still, as a single person with no dependents, I had a bit of leeway in what I could afford.

The issue then began of finding a place that was decently priced, but in a decent area. I found places that were really nice, price-wise, but weren’t in great areas. The ones that were in fantastic areas were, obviously, too expensive. As it was, I ended up sacrificing a bit on price to live in an area that was almost perfect on all accounts: decent neighborhood, very close to work, transportation, and grocery stores, etc.

But where is it? In an area that apparently, over a decade ago was not that great of a place, or at least wasn’t where you found ridiculously expensive condos and upscale markets.

This fact is something I’m not quite sure how to deal with. While it’s not as if I was one of the first people moving in, changing the socioeconomics of the neighborhood and making it more upscale, I am certainly benefitting from it. I am walking distance from multiple yoga studios, vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurants, bookstores, coffee shops, and upscale grocery stores, just to name a few things. The thing that really puts this into stark relief is that if i walk ~4 blocks to the east, it’s like night and day and I end up in an area that looks almost nothing like the one I left, economically speaking. It’s like walking into the neighborhoods of my childhood, with fried chicken restaurants, nail salons and check cashing places sprinkled all over. Crossing the line between these two worlds in such a short amount of space is jarring. Not because it seems like a different world, but because I know that ~4 blocks behind me used to look just like this not too long ago.

It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that I live somewhere that is slowly changing the face and economics of surrounding neighborhoods, often completely changing the economics and shade of the landscape.

I used to think of gentrification in strictly racial terms, very black and white (almost literally). White people moving in, people of color being pushed/priced out. But the more I learn about it, the more I witness it, the more I recognize the nuance and complexity. I am a case in point. I think it is reasonable to say that I am an agent of gentrification, so to speak. My income and single/no-dependent status make it so that I can afford to live in this neighborhood. But I’m not white. Granted, I’m a renter, but I’m still living there, another person within the (albeit lower end of the) income demographics that make up my neighborhood. I’m putting money into this neighborhood, shopping in some of the stores, buying the food, etc. While I’m probably adding color to the neighborhood, my financial status may very well be helping to push other people (of color) out and/or changing the landscape. I read a blog post not too long ago talking about this, calling it “brown on brown” gentrification, drawing attention to the reality of some people of color as gentrifiers, and the level of class that plays into the issue. (Also, interesting, the area I live is also considered to have undergone gentrification via gaytrification, but that’s another story for another time.)

All this is to say that the issue of gentrification still largely concerns race, but it’s also much more about class and economics than it is made to appear.

How does one reconcile this? My instinct has always been “gentrification – bad” when it comes pricing people out of their homes and replacing them with affluent spenders, instead of an effort to improve the quality of living of the people already there. But here I am, paying a bit more than what I should to live in this neighborhood that is so convenient for me. Again, it’s something I find hard to wrap my brain around. It’s also something I find hard to wrap my emotions around. I don’t know if I ever will.

knowledge trajectories

It’s been a long time since I’ve taken a class. A very long time. I’m sitting in on a methods class, as I have no real experience conducting social science research. Up to this point I’ve been picking it up as I go, theoretically, but now something a little more formal is necessary.

As I was sitting there, listening to discussion on a branch of research within social science that is relatively foreign to me, I looked around the room wondering where this knowledge was going to go. Where will these theories go? What will this research about this one seemingly obscure thing, or that seemingly obscure thing do? What is it’s purpose? What are we doing in these ivory towers?

The academy is an interesting place. Universities are institutions where so much knowledge is pondered, created, recreated, reconfigured, broken down and built back up, and so on. Students come to learn, professors and researchers come to teach and conduct research. But then what happens? In higher education, we write papers, take exams, get graded. We hypothesize, we theorize, do field work, do experiments, write theses and dissertations. We carry out studies and write papers and publish them in obscure journals only those in our field (or in closely related fields) read. They’ll read it, agree with or debate it, try to do something similar or different and publish that. (That’s typical in science.) Or, in other fields, we write an article, or a lit review, a book review. Or we’ll write a book that may or may not reach far outside of our fields, to our expected audiences. The contents will be shared amongst colleagues, disseminated in classes for students to read, put out there for scholars to debate.

It seems that most of this work, most of this knowledge is created/recreated and disseminated, but only as far as the walls of academia. There it circles around from researcher, to professor, to teacher, to student. The student who is often being trained to become a researcher and/or teacher (i.e. the undergraduate researcher or the grad student), who does research, publishes their work, etc. The knowledge is confined in the academy, where only the privileged can access it. Case in point, you typically have to have university affiliation to access academic journals online or check things out of the university library.

Additionally there is the issue of knowledge validation. Many people have knowledge or possibly have ways to conduct research and create knowledge (or pass on the knowledge that has been passed to them through family, community, history, time), but it is only considered legitimate after the university deems it so. To do that usually requires getting into the university.

I find this really interesting in terms of who has access to academic knowledge and how that knowledge is used. I think about this often, one reason being science education.

In higher ed science there is much discussion (via articles and national reports) about the need for more people of color in math and science in higher education/academia. Without getting into the reasons why people often feel this is important (for the reasons often irk me and could be the topic of it’s own post), there is much discussion on possible solutions. Many of them include ways to get kids into the “STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) pipeline,” literally streamlining kids into STEM at early ages and ensuring that they remain on that path all the way until they get their PhD and a professorship.

I’m all for more people of color in STEM fields (although the language of the “pipeline” makes me somewhat uneasy – every time I hear it I am reminded of the cradle-to-prison pipeline), but what do we do when we get there? One of supposed outcomes of us getting there, it is suggested, is that this will increase the knowledge-base of all persons of color, helping everyone make better decisions about the world around us (i.e. thinking about things “scientifically” and/or more critically). Ok, yes. But how does that work if the aim is to get us obtaining PhDs and doing research or teaching in academia? How does that knowledge get disseminated? The skin tone of academia may change, but won’t that knowledge still be wrapped up in the university?

I feel like universities are so disconnected from communities at times, even the communities they are situated within, physically. Here, I suppose, I am making the assumption that universities and the learning that goes on within them should at some point get back to the community…On the one hand the disconnect may just be from a scientist’s perspective, where it is, at times, hard to place that research in a broader, human context. But I often wonder about the social sciences and humanities as well. How often does that work, that research, get to the people? How often do those theories become practice? How often does that work get used to improve the lives of people, of communities? How often does that work make a difference outside?

When I was an undergrad, I wanted to grow up to be a college or university professor. I wanted to teach. But more than that, I wanted to be a positive influence. I worked with younger kids relatively often, typically youth of color in science and/or environmental programs, who had little science/environmental science exposure in school and/or who didn’t attend the greatest schools. The programs were often college-focused, or with the intent to expose youth of color/low income students to the multitude of options out there. One of the common trends was that most of them didn’t think much about science, nor saw themselves doing science because when they thought of scientists, they thought of older white men. Working with these kids, and remembering that I was one of them in their situation when I was their age always made me wonder how I could make a difference to them. I liked to think that them just seeing me made a small difference, as I was typically one of the few people of color amongst the “scientists” or mentors.

So, I thought that with being a professor my sheer existence in academia would make a difference to older students. As an undergrad, and later as an early grad student, I rarely ever saw myself reflected in my field of biological sciences, or in science in general. I thought that my becoming a professor would mean one more woman of color in (science) academia. That students simply seeing me at the podium, in the lecture hall, at the front of class, wherever, would make a difference.

To some extent I still believe this. I have recently felt the strength and power that comes from seeing almost all of myself (black, woman, queer, PhD-holding person) reflected, not in my field specifically, but in an academic setting. For. the. first. time. ever. (Granted, I’ve probably interacted with some and just not known it. In fact, this has been alluded to by others to whom I’ve mentioned this. However, show me black/woman/queer/PhD in science and I’ll probably faint.) There was so much power there that I feel more certain of the impact my presence could bring.

But where would this difference really be made, and to whom? Would it just be to the kids who mad it to college? Doesn’t knowledge deserve to be shared, spread, taken up and put to good use by everyone? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do with it?

It is this that I think about. It is this that makes me waver back and forth on whether I should stay in academia. It is this that leads me to look beyond academia strictly. Yes, I think my presence as a woman of color in a science field would prove helpful to many students. But what about the people outside the privileged institution of the university? What about our communities?

what does achievement really mean?

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about achievement gaps lately. Thinking critically and wondering, is it really correct to refer to the differential performance between certain groups (i.e. ethnic groups, socioeconomic groups, etc.) of students as “achievement gaps”?

  • achievement: the act of achieving or performing; accomplishment; an obtaining by exertion; successful performance.
  • achieve: 1. to carry out successfully: accomplish. 2. to get or attain as a result of exertion. (combination of Merriam-Webster and Wiktionary definitions).

The definition of achievement requires an individual or individuals to commit the act of achieving, to attain as a result of exertion, to accomplish something, to be successful. If one does not achieve, by definition, it would mean that they did not accomplish something, presumably due to a lack of carrying out that pursuit to the fullest or a lack of exertion, resulting in a lack of success. It could alternatively be argued that if an individual/individuals does not achieve, it may be due to some obstacle, some unseen force that prevents them from succeeding. However, I think even then, that lack of achievement could still be seen as a lack of performance or a lack in an adequate amount of exertion getting around that unseen force, that results in not succeeding.

In terms of education, then, it is solely the responsibility of the students to perform, to obtain by mental and intellectual exertion and succeed, obstacles or no obstacles. It follows then, that if there is a gap, the students at the bottom of the gap, for whatever reason, are not succeeding due to some lack of exertion or sub-par performance.

Upon reflection, this language can be problematic. While students should be responsible for trying to do well and succeeding in school, the language places the onus of succeeding (and admonition of failure) solely on the students, while simultaneously drawing attention away from the structures in which the students must operate. In attempting to “fix” these gaps, all focus is directed at the students, as they are the perceived source of the “achievement” gap. Instead of looking at the situation as a whole (i.e. students and teachers, school, neighborhood, resources, district, politics, etc.), students are viewed largely in isolation. Now, it is erroneous to imply that when achievement gaps are discussed, no one mentions the possible factors such as race, gender, socioeconomic status, parent involvement, teacher quality; these, and many other gap indicators are implicated as influencing the gap. However, when trying to figure out how to deal with these gaps most efforts are directed at the students (e.g. more activities, longer content blocks, after school programs, tutoring, etc.) to improve their success and student’s achievement is thought of in isolation from these various gap factors.

But how can one realistically rank “achievement” when structural conditions are not equal and/or have not been equal throughout the student’s life? How does one measure achievement when, for example, students of color have been historically disadvantaged in education, when low-income students have been historically disadvantaged, when rural and urban students have been historically disadvantaged… How do you hold all these kids up to the achievement yardstick, discover that they are, on average, lower-achieving and direct all your efforts to the kids without addressing the structural inequalities that put them there in the first place? (There are exceptions, many many exceptionsof exceptional students, hence the key words “on average.”) Yes, attention should definitely be paid to the kids, no doubt, but for gaps that have persisted for decades, how do you continue to ignore the larger circumstances? The students are the results. Eventually you have to turn around and start looking at the causes.

When people are measuring “achievement,” they are not measuring educational success; they are measuring inequality, oppression, and privilege. Students of color, low-income, english language learners, urban, rural, special needs students, etc. are measured against a white, middle-class yardstick and are, on average, found to be wanting. Or at least, that’s what test scores say. Is it really a surprise that students who attend lower funded schools with less resources don’t score as high as those with a plethora of resources? Is it really a surprise that students who are in schools that use tracking and are placed on the lower track don’t score as high as those in schools that don’t use tracking or who are on the higher track? Is it really any surprise when the kids on the lower track who get fewer educational/curricular opportunities score lower than those given more opportunities? (And is it really a surprise that the kids on the lower track are disproportionately low-income/students of color/English-language learners?). Is it really a surprise that students who don’t score as high are more likely to have teachers who are less experienced or who are out-of-field teachers (teachers who don’t teach in the subject they were certified in or got degrees in)? The list goes on.

This is why the language of “achievement” is so interesting and potentially problematic. The word achievement detracts from the structural confines the students are operating within. The word achieve implies that the students have a greater amount of agency than they really do. Call it an achievement gap and you look to the students to find out what’s the matter. Call it an achievement gap and you look only in the space immediately outside the students to the teachers, the school, the parents, the neighborhood. Call it an achievement gap and maybe start thinking about the funding the student’s school receives, the district, maybe the state. Maybe, but one shouldn’t look deeper than that because that is obviously a waste of time, when time and focus should be on the students. But call it inequality and it puts the whole situation into perspective. Call it racism, classism, elitism, capitalism, ___ism and it puts student success into a social and historical context. Call it what it is and the issue gets viewed in its entirety, truthfully and completely.