Widening Inclusion by Including the Details

This was my second ScienceOnline, the excellent annual science communication conference held in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Last year was an amazing experience, but it was all about the rush of a new experience. I was new to the community. I hadn’t started blogging seriously. I didn’t know anyone in person. It was, quite frankly, absolutely terrifying. The moment I arrived I got a hug from Bora and sat down next to Jason only to immediately get dragged into a conversation on the eating of keystone predators. I knew I really didn’t have to worry about fitting in. However, there were other worries: how was I going to get around without a car; would the food accommodate my dietary needs; would my batteries last the day.

This year, I knew a little more about what to expect. I didn’t have to worry about what the atmosphere would be like, or if I would get along with these people face to face. I was comfortable enough to propose a panel topic. I knew not to worry about exactly which sessions to attend, since they would all be thoroughly tweeted. This  left me free to concentrate on the details, and it turns out that the main message I took away from this year was just that: details.

From the moment the conference started, it was clear that the organizers had put a great deal of thought into even the smallest things. The first thing that stood out to me was that the badges were printed the same on both front and back. It made for a much more painless process of figuring out who people were, and is such an easy fix to the problem of flipped badges that I’m amazed I’ve never seen any other group or event do this.

This year, they also switched from a tote bag full of swag to a little notebook. This seems like it would be a downgrade, but really it was a brilliant change. This little notebook was the swag of previous ScienceOnlines distilled into the platonic ideal of conference swag: It had tradable stickers, tickets for the book lottery, temporary tattoos advertising various sites or ideas (that were immediately stuck to people’s faces, hands and other body parts in what was either a beautiful showing of group togetherness, or a future study for Maryn McKenna), there were coupons for coffee and ice cream and, most importantly, note space!

Another detail that seems small and insignificant, but really improved the flow of the conference, was the lunch setup. Last year we had fantastic food from a variety of lunch trucks and buffets. The food was fantastic, but there was that ever-present problem of having to run directly from the last presentation to the lunch line in order to get food in time, thus cutting short interesting conversations or other interactions. This year, that wasn’t a problem; all of the food was boxed and clearly labeled. The vegetarian and gluten-free options were off to one side. The drinks were off to another side. This set-up made it really easy to grab what we wanted and find a seat. We didn’t have to wait in a never-ending buffet line while the person in front of you agonized about whether they wanted croutons. Even when we did have a buffet, it was set up so that there were several buffet lines, thus serving people more quickly than one long table ever would.

Okay, why am I writing about specific details of a conference for a general readership, that may not know or even care about what the lunch arrangements were in a small science communication conference in North Carolina? Because they’re all about details. They were things that no one *needed* to think about. Most people would have an enriching experience without those little details. But what about those who might have food anxiety, or worry about trying to remember names when badges are flipped? To those people, those little details become huge, glaring problems, eating away at their ability to enjoy an event. I’m going to go on the record and admit something embarrassing at this point. I’m terrified of interacting with people I don’t know very well. I worry that I’m not going to recognize someone I should and that I will offend them. Or I worry I’m going to forget how to make smalltalk. I worry about my blood sugar and whether I will have enough vegetarian food to eat. In some circumstances, these things even leave me hesitant to go places that should be safe spaces. Going to a conference where badges were always easily viewable, we had things to interact over (stickers, tattoos, legos, etc.) and where everything, down to the smallest detail, was thought through carefully went a long way towards making this one of the best social experiences I’ve ever had.

This idea has wider repercussions. As I was free to focus on the subjects being talked about, and the issues being brought up, more and more details started jumping out at me. It started with Mireya Mayor’s keynote, which focused on themes of placing herself within a culture of science, when so many aspects of her life would have seemed to exclude her. Dr. Mayor is an excellent speaker, and the pictures of beautiful scenery and cute critters didn’t hurt, but something struck me. She talked about how much it meant for her to recreate the journey of Dr. Livingstone in the show Expedition Africa. On the surface this is a lovely sentiment about being part of a tradition of explorers and scientists. In this, it fit very well with her theme.

These stories we tell about science and scientific tradition are important to the culture of science. They offer a shared mythology and a collective background for how we conduct ourselves as scientists and citizens. As a group, we hear them and repeat them. We shape our own experience of the world and of our fields around them. However, they don’t always tell the same story to everyone. Dr. Livingstone is a cornerstone of our experience as the heirs to an imperial culture. I would imagine that even many people who couldn’t correctly place either the temporal or geographical position of his adventures. He brings to mind vague ideas about pith hats and adventure, exploration and mission work. However, if you look beyond the surface at the real story the man tells, you find a much more problematic idea. Yes, he was an explorer, but he was an explorer with the goal of converting the ‘poor natives’. He was anti-slavery, but he took help and refuge from the very slavers he rebuked in his writings. He hated the colonial exploitation of Africa, but by his very presence as a man funded by colonial societies, he allowed for an easier transition from an autonomous land to a foreign-controlled land*.

These are details that don’t generally make it into the mythos, but they’re important details. Yes, you can leave them out, play with the common ideas and end up with an interesting surface-level story that will, in all honesty, appeal to a majority of your audience. However, if you bring some of the extra details into your narrative – if you acknowledge the problems, the conflicts and the downright disturbing parts of the past – you have the ability to bring in a far-wider audience. Why? Well, the people who were on the losing end of these historical narratives know the details, and when they hear the ‘inspirational story’ while brushing aside the problems, then you have brushed those people aside as well. You may have established your own place within the history of science, but you have unintentionally told other people that their place is in the shadows. I’m guilty of this. I’m an educator and have spent my entire career telling simplified stories. I have always been careful to include the stories of women within my educational endeavors, but as a white woman, it never even occurred to me that there were many, many other stories I wasn’t telling. It took stepping outside of science education for me to realize this.

I started taking history classes more or less on a lark. Up until that point I had been entirely focused on the sciences, but I needed a sequence of humanities credits that didn’t fall under one of my majors. There was a European History course at a time that didn’t conflict with my job. So I took it.

It was one of the most frustrating educational experiences I had ever had. This wasn’t the fault of the professor. He was doing a really good job with a huge lecture survey class. He covered the material he needed to, and in a way that made it engaging and easy to draw parallels. I’m sure people from that class will be correctly answering trivia questions about the Habsburgs for years because of that class.

We covered large swathes of history. We learned about battles and people. We learned about religious changes and culture turns. We got a good overview of a top-down history of Europe. But something was missing.

At the same time as taking that class, I was working in a museum exhibit about a sunken ship. This sunken ship had originally been a slave ship before being captured by pirates and taken on a rampage through the Caribbean and finally sunk in a storm off the Massachusetts coast. You would think that working in an exhibit like this would have helped me to learn my European history. It didn’t. The men who sailed on this ship were nowhere in European history, except as statistics. They’re the details that were left out of the bigger picture.

They were slaves. Then they were pirates. They were the disenfranchised. They were men who had no place in the world of kings and scholars except as possessions, criminals or boogeymen. Yet in this exhibit there was such an in-depth look at the lives that these men (and yes, I use ‘men’ intentionally. The world of the 18th C. sailing ship was not a world of women in general) were rich and deep and fascinating. They were full of tragedy and triumph. What was more interesting was what they weren’t. They weren’t the fine words and fine clothes of the princes of Europe. They were a diverse group of people, from Dutch-Africans to 13 year old British boys. They were a (comparatively) educated surgeon and a (comparatively) well off pirate captain. This exhibit managed to tell the story of a variety of people without hiding the messy bits or the issues. This was done in the three hours it took to go through the exhibit (if you read everything and didn’t have a 4 year old pulling you ahead).

Why couldn’t my actual history course be like that?  I thought about this a lot. I loved the class I was taking, but there was so much that was left out. It was the story of the highest levels of society, or at best, the second-highest. It bothered me. I actually became incredibly frustrated and asked my professor directly.

His response? That he was teaching to a curriculum for this survey course. He had a little bit of flexibility in what he taught, but not much. In his upper level courses, he made more of an effort to include stories from everyone. Unfortunately, in the survey class, if he wanted to put in that extra information, he was limited to adding it at the periphery – in his choices of books for essays and in extra credit.

Then he said something that stuck with me: I have to teach to the curriculum, but you don’t. Isn’t that why you’re in a museum and not in front of a class?

Checkmate. Yes. Yes it was. I had specifically gone into informal education. I had heard the horror stories about curriculum standards and tests. I had watched my own brilliant teachers struggle against what the school district said they had to teach.

But I wasn’t stuck in that. I could teach whatever I wanted to, as long as I could get people to stand still for more than 5 minutes to listen to me.

From that moment, I’ve tried to make more of a point to look at the stories I’m telling in my teaching. What do they say, both about people who look like me and about people who don’t? What stories are they telling the people who might have a different perspective?

This is why it bothers me when people tell the same old stories, without examining them. Not because I’m upset that they’re taking an interest in the story itself, but because the myth that floats at the forefront of society’s mind and gets itself told over and over again often hides something much more interesting, something much deeper and much more inclusive.

My professor was right. I don’t have a curriculum to teach to, so why would I use those same repeated stories? Why not dig a little deeper into the details of things. Pull out the parts that could be problematic when viewed from a different background. These details are completely invisible when done right. However, when done wrong (and usually they are), they can leave someone with a feeling of unease if not being actively pushed away. Bora, Anton and Karyn put so much thought into the details of Science Online 2012 that we could stop worrying about them and focus on the issues we came to discuss. If we can work just as hard to get the details right in regards to the stories we tell, then those we are trying to bring into our world won’t be left outside while they worry if there’s enough room at the buffet for them.

* For a great book on Colonial Africa and the characters involved, King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild is a must-read.

How Science Online Discovered Pubic Lice

Every community has some sort of juvenile humor. That makes sense. It’s a talent we master somewhere around the age of 5, and like tying our shoes or riding our bikes, it’s something we never quite forget how to do, even if we haven’t actively practiced one of those arts in years.


That said, the community at the Science Online conference seems to take sex jokes and raise them to an art. Where another group of people would be content with a “That’s what she said” thrown into an opportune moment with a smirk and several groans, we construct beautifully written blog posts about bat fellatio, or give lectures on duck penises, or make a story about pubic lice into the capstone of banquet entertainment, as the frighteningly talented Bug Girl did during the The Monti storytelling at the Science Online 2012 banquet this past Friday.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write a wrap-up of Science Online 2012, which just occurred in North Carolina last weekend. I considered serious posts. I considered emotional posts. I considered personal stories, anthropological studies and technical analysis.

But I just kept coming back to the sex jokes.

Why? While I do have a slightly suspect sense of humor, I don’t generally dwell on that kind of humor, and I certainly try to keep it out of most professional settings.

So why is it, when I go to write about a professional conference, why do I find myself writing about pubic lice?

Well, because I think that this tendency to focus on the sexy or the gross, the morbid or the taboo, is not just a symptom of our four days of very little sleep, more than a little alcohol in some cases and a deep sense of intellectual and cultural overstimulation.

No, this is an integral part of who we are as a group. We focus on duck penises because we almost have to.

We are all story tellers, whether scientists, journalists or educators.  We take data and create hypotheses. We take facts and construct narratives. We take a curriculum and transform it into inspiration.

We teach ourselves to recognize oases of interest in the driest deserts. We  develop a nose for the questions that remain unasked, the research that remains hidden away in a corner, and the boring subject that will transform someone’s life into a quest to know more.

We will grab on to the slightest thing that we think will pull people into a subject. If we can’t find something readily available, we will blunt force bash one out. We’re pretty good at this. It’s what we do.

So, when given such a nice, easy hook as duck penises or pubic lice, we grab onto it and refuse to let it go. We turn it every which way and generally beat it to death, just like any other group would.

However, jokes don’t just stop at being jokes. Even if they did, they could have shared use to our community as a sort of in-group language, and that would be okay, but they don’t. We tell the jokes. We share the humor and the group-building, but while we’re telling them, each of us is thinking ‘now, how do I use this? how do I make this something more?’ We then create stories around these facts. We use fruit bat fellatio as a way to explore non-reproductive activities that enhance reproductive fitness. We use barnacle sex to explain different methods for overcoming a lack of mobility. I personally research Syphilis as a way to explore social inequalities that remain major issues today.

In telling her story about strange questions entomologists get asked, Bug Girl created an even bigger story. The comment I heard over and over again was that while it was an inherently funny story, what really made it perfect was her delivery. She recognized the best way to tell it, she tailored it to her audience and she made it her own. In doing so, she made it all of ours.

This is the essence of what science communication at its best does. When a good writer or a good researcher or a good educator takes the time to unravel the threads of what seems like it should be a common subject and then weaves those threads back together, they don’t just imbue the story with their own style, and make it their own. They take that story, that otherwise would have languished in data or in nature or in the inbox of a harried entomologist, and they put that story in front of an audience. When they do it right, some members of that audience will take that story and fold it into their own experience, bringing it up and retelling it in ways that the original author never would have considered. That story will go on to spawn new and utterly unpredictable questions and new and unpredictable stories.

When you identify yourself as as science writer, people tend to immediately think one of two things: Very Serious National Geographic articles or about whatever big controversy is raging in the public eye at the moment.  And yes, we could stick to telling stories about ‘serious’ topics, but sometimes it’s just fun to take a side step from trying to explain, very seriously, what exactly the Higgs Boson is, or why it’s so important to protect biodiversity. Sometimes that side step involves an explanation of how duck penises work. You never know how each story is going to end up affecting people.

And some day, some *very* inspired writer is going to use duck penises or pubic lice to explain the Higgs Boson. With the stew of ideas that is percolating in the collective intelligence I witnessed last weekend, I imagine it will be sooner rather than later. And then, as an educator (and science geek), I will have the chance to gleefully recount that story to as many people as possible, making that story grow and maybe even get people more interested in the plain physics or biology in the process!