Teachable Moment

Like the Boondock’s N-word moment, but you know, hopefully productive. The teachable moment is an expression of how what someone said can be a mine field they are unaware of.

I should have gotten my PhD, because “Doctor Freelove” has a nice ring to it. But more than that, I love explaining things.

New server at a restaurant told me how I looked like a scary person to meet in a parking lot. He was being playful referring to a story I had told him about a person contacting me on Facebook in a weird way wanting to either meet or mail me something. On its face, it was still microaggression territory.

I didn’t want to lay into him and solidify his potentially racist views. I didn’t want to make someone who feels like an ally feel alienated.

So instead, I told him some stories about my experiences. He was engaged. Others who witnessed were drawn into the conversation. Based on his comments, I think he got my points about how this stuff is something we have to carefully navigate. And it is draining to have to do so. The question is, will it help him be even just a tad more cognizant?


“Look Like Them”

Read an article about pay disparities by gender in the system by which I am employed which mentioned research that students get along best with faculty members who look like them. It made me laugh out loud.

I cannot recall a teacher who looked like me: male, tall, and half-white / half-black. Or at least of brown skin.

The only male teacher that comes close to matching this might be my 8th-grade math & science teacher who lectured by popping his wrist with a rubber band. He is also African-American, tall, and broad shoulders. Cannot say we got along that well so much as we students cowered in fear of him.

Certainly, that year, I got along much better with my literature teacher, but she is short, Caucasian, and female. My recollection of my 2nd-grade teacher was she was African-American but of lighter skin color.


Peril of Good Intentions

Defeated in college

I ran across a friend’s Facebook post about parenting and related a description of a college psychology professor’s eugenics lecture. The reply was that eliminating the genes of less intelligent people seems like it could help improve society. This seeming promise is why it has been tried many times. Before the Holocaust shifted to genocide, it dabbled in eugenics and mimicked United States eugenics programs.

But, let’s assume that a eugenics program stayed away from genocide. I still have issues with this…

Why a specific person is intelligent or not tends to be not so clear cut as good or bad genes. Psychologists tend to be pretty sure that most of intelligence comes from genes. I personally think genes provide recipes for brain cells and a layout of those cells. The brain cells still have to be grown and connections established in the brain. Exposure to various experiences in the raising of the child help achieve the potential provided by the brains. If a person both has good genes and was raised in such a way to maximize their potential, then I think a person ought to become the person we want them to be. Are we at a point where almost all children can are provided the experiences to reach this potential? Not even close. I think people who think we reasonably are at this point feel that eugenics or genetic modification are the ways to push beyond our plateau. I would prefer we fix the environment before we start punishing people for lack of socioeconomic resources or programs to help.

Biases cloud our conclusions in situations where we are not usually aware. It was thought the reason orchestras were almost all male because they were better performers. They shifted to a better mix of genders after the practice of blind auditions became common. Why? Because there are biases which affect opinions assessments beneath our ability to tell. We see similar issues when it comes to intelligence assessment and especially jobs in skilled fields. IQ tests have fought hard to get better at not being WEIRD. Anonymous names on papers change the grades students get and which conference submissions are accepted. Some of meritocracies could be doing much better.

When people think they are objective and unbiased then they don’t monitor and scrutinize their own behavior. They just assume that they are right and that their assessments are accurate. Yet, studies repeatedly show that stereotypes of all kinds (gender, ethnicity, age, disability etc.) are filters through which we evaluate others, often in ways that advantage dominant groups and disadvantage lower-status groups.

The eugenics movements were confident the physically & mentally unfit, materially poor, and atheists needed to controlled. People of color just happened to commonly be identified as meeting their criteria. I will be skeptical of any similar movement to be truly objective because even though they truly intend to be, the prior ones thought they were too. Hindsight shows they were not.

Of course, the abomination that I am was the reasoning for why my parents were not allowed to marry in my home state. It was deemed bad for the Caucasian race to allow mixing with inferior races. That probably fuels my own bias against this kind of thing.

Review: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself by Harriet Jacobs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book accounts for Harriet Jacobs’ life as a slave, hiding for several years in the South, escaping to the North, and finally obtaining her freedom. She presents some letters documenting the tale. Given the current events of recent weeks where a self-taught white supremacist in his manifesto setup before committing terrorism to start a race war that according to the slave narratives he had read people like me were happy under slavery and there was no need to free my ancestors. Other books I have read like Twelve Years A Slave and Up From Slavery seemed not to portray this, but I did read them a while ago.

Harriet really disliked her time as a slave. Her “official” owner was a minor whose father assumed the role. This man who already fathered several children with his slaves seemed to desire the same for this fifteen year old girl. When she had children with another (white) man, he as the owner of them sought to use babies as leverage to compel her to obey his salacious wishes. Oddly enough this guy’s wife forced the sale to distant places the products of her husband’s infidelity. To me, the idea that one’s own children are chattel boggles my mind. But, also Solomon Northrup and Booker T. faced less cruelty under slavery than Harriet as the contempt facing her was that of both an African and a woman. Her master underestimated her intelligence which allowed her to escape.

View all my reviews

TED Talk: Identity in the 21st Century

Two major recurring political issues in the United States are related, I think, to issues of mixing cultures. There is an instinct to trust those like us more implicitly and consider those who do not look or act like us as bad. Coming to trust people as members of our “tribe” can reverse this instinct. That process means overcoming the instinct. We have to ignore the distaste of the instinct and get to know people.

Easier said than done. But people do.

Immigration as an issue is not unique to today. The same lame objections about the personal qualities of Hispanics were labeled against Italians, Irish, and others. They seem to completely fall in line with this distaste of the foreign tribe. Over time as almost all people started coming to trust the foreigners it disappeared. A different group became the “bad” one.

The objection to LGBTs, I think, falls into the same category. Melanin content, cheek bones, or height make for easier identification for inclusion or exclusion than behavior preference. The social conscience has only tracked this for a few decades. I expect a few more will be required for enough people to include them in the “tribe” and the issue to disappear.

In the mean time, I liked Bryad’s description in the video below of perceiving our instincts, understanding them as wrong, and holding the discipline to get past them to a better place.

If the video below does not work, then try TEDxEducationCity (2012) – Byrad Yyelland – Identity in the 21st Century

Ada Lovelace Day

Today is Ada Lovelace Day to celebrate women in technology and science. I’ve read women need role models more than men. If true, then movements like this to promote those who are doing great work in fields like technology are good. First a little about Ada.

Ada [Lovelace[ called herself  “an Analyst (& Metaphysician),” and the combination was put to use in the Notes. She understood the plans for the device as well as Babbage but was better at articulating its promise. She rightly saw it as what we would call a general-purpose computer. It was suited for “developping [sic] and tabulating any function whatever. . . the engine [is] the material expression of any indefinite function of any degree of generality and complexity.” Her Notes anticipate future developments, including computer-generated music. Women in Science

If you recognize someone who ought to be recognized, then blog about her and note the post at findingada.com. I’m stoked Valdosta State University recognized Lisa Baldwin. I’m also stoked VSU noted the other IT staff, especially Amelia Reams who I supervised some of her tenure as a student assistant working in IT at VSU.

Too bad there’s not a similar sort of thing from the University System of Georgia?

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