Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Why We Need to Talk About the Collaboration Problem

Today I spoke with a Computer Science professor who is finishing a semester of teaching a notoriously challenging advanced undergraduate course.

"I figured out the problem with my female students," he told me. "It's their partners."

All semester, this colleague--let's call him Albus Dumbledore--had been telling me about the strange phenomenon of drama with his female students and their project partners. The course has a significant project component, and successful completion of the project usually depended on both partners pulling their weight. Mediating partner disputes became the responsibility of the instructor. And what the instructor noticed was that an alarming fraction of the disputes seemed to happen when one of the partners was female.

After wondering all semester how bias might contribute to the drama of the female students' partners, Albus had a relevation. The female students complaining about their partners all seemed to have better overall grades than their partners. Not only did the partners have lower GPAs, but many of them were from outside of Computer Science. Albus surmised that these partners were, in fact, probably not pulling their weight, and that the students had every right to complain.

"But why would these strong students choose such bad partners?" he asked.

That female students had bad partners was, to me, not surprising. After all, nobody had asked me to work on any problem set until the second semester of my sophomore year, and a fellow student only asked me after obtaining an unprotected copy of course grades on our department servers and discovering I had the second-highest midterm score in one of our courses. I told Albus about how a friend once confessed to me that before she had gotten to know me, she had forbade her boyfriend from working with me. I told him about how problem set partners often preferred to solve problems for me rather than with me. My best collaboration in college had been with another woman, and she had been so initially skeptical of my abilities that it took me at least half of a semester to win her over with how fast and how correct my code was.

"So it's not by choice," Albus concluded. "What can we do about this?"

Important question. For my first few years of college, the collaboration problem had left me feeling so isolated and so much in doubt of my abilities that I often thought about switching away from Computer Science. If not for a chance encounter with a friend, one year behind me and facing similar problems, I might have left. What began as a quick hello as our paths intersected on the way back from class turned into a long discussion about the difficulties we both had in finding people who would collaborate with us. I had graded this woman's homework in multiple classes, so I knew the problem was not that she was not capable. This was when I began to realize that the problem may not be with me, but with the way people perceived me--and other women.

Years later, when I was starting Graduate Women at MIT, this conversation led me to put together a panel on collaboration--specifically, on collaborating as women in male-dominated fields. I felt so validated when the panelists--three women at various stages in their careers, each at the top of her field--said what I had observed for years, but had never dared to say out loud. It can be hard to collaborate with men, one panelist said: they often talk at you rather than to you because they are socialized to impress women. It can be harder to collaborate with two men, another panelist said: they will often talk only to each other while trying to impress you. (I don't like to make blanket statements about all people of a gender, just like I don't like to make blanket statements of all people from a culture, but these kinds of conversations can be helpful for recognizing patterns.) While much of this advice was unsurprising, and also depressing, it felt incredibly powerful to hear someone else say these statements out loud. Talking about this explicitly seemed like the first step towards solving the problem.

In the intervening years, I've collected much more evidence of the problem than I have solutions. It is undeniable that collaborations account for much of people's success in technical settings. Albus talked about how, in his class, the students with subpar partners struggled to complete their projects. A recent study I read* cited female academics' ability to travel for international collaboration as one of the biggest determinants of their success. Yet collaboration seems to remain a problem. At a recent lunch of Women@SCS in my department, I spoke about my experiences with Graduate Women at MIT, including about the collaboration panel, and the student kept returning to the issue of collaborating in a male-dominated field. Students asked about how to find collaborators who would take them seriously. Students asked about what to do in groups when people may not be listening to them. A student asked what to do if she has had so many negative collaboration experiences she is reluctant to collaborate anymore. A student said that she, too, felt like male collaborators were often trying to impress her rather than work with her, but she had thought it was in her head.

After the recent lunch, a student asked me about the benefit of talking explicitly about these issues. Wouldn't it be better, she asked, to not draw attention to gender and wait for the problems to go away? I, too, would love to live in a post-gender world where people can just be people. Unfortunately, it seems that collaboration is a topic we need to address explicitly. Not only do these cross-gender/culture problems not seem to be going away on their own, but they also seem to be increasing certain inequalities. Especially in Computer Science, smart people have done an excellent job of solving many other problems of gender equality. I have full confidence that once we recognize this as a problem, we can find good solutions. I would love to hear your ideas.

* In the process of looking for this citation... Let me know if you have it!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

A Post-Election Email Exchange on Academia and Politics

Since Tuesday, I've been thinking about what we could be doing better--in terms of encouraging civil participation, in terms of satisfying the needs of the people who did participate in the last election. I don't yet have fully-formed thoughts, but in the meantime here's a recent email exchange.


from:Jean Yang
to:Robert M Ochshorn,
Chinmay Kulkarni
date:Fri, Nov 11, 2016 at 8:27 AM
subject:Academia and politics

In an email thread the other day, a colleague wondered whether we should be more like the "universities of the 60s" and take a more active role in politics. I had thought then that this wasn't the case, that the issue was these rural voters we couldn't reach, but then I learned that only 1/3 of millenials voted. I came upon this thread on Twitter today:
It's not *quite* my experience, but I think it's useful to talk more about the politics associated with science, and not just the politics of how we talk about science.

An underlying theme of my seminar has been "politics is everything," but previously the scope had been limited to discussing why papers were written the way they were, why certain papers were considered important, the actual impact of papers with respect to some notion of "real world." Yesterday we spent the first thirty minutes talking about the election, and I made a point to talk about the mechanics of the electoral system the way we've been talking about the mechanics of the publication system--something I've gotten pretty worked up about is voter protections. Later we talked about the relationship between science and funding, and how projects could be for both good (e.g. curing disease) and sinister (e.g. surveillance) purposes. The students seemed to appreciate this discussion, and my one student had that nice quote: "We may be solving biological cancer and creating a social cancer."
I previously didn't know how far to push things when it came to talking about the social aspects of science, especially since this is a class in the Computer Science Department, but the students have seemed to appreciate it when I've talked about systems, hierarchies, and the underlying reasons things happen the way they do. I've been thinking about how to connect my relatively narrow academic activism to more generalizable messages and lessons for students who are going to graduate and be the technical/scientific elite.

Jean Yang
website | twitter


from:Chinmay Kulkarni
to:Jean Yang,
cc:Robert M Ochshorn
date:Fri, Nov 11, 2016 at 10:13 AM
subject:Re: Academia and politics

Activist campuses are great, if they know what they are activating. The 60s coalesced around peace and civil rights, but what do we want now?

I've been reading a lot into social disenfranchisement, and I worry that things are only going to get worse. Automation is an exponential process, so we're kinda screwed if we don't figure out what people who don't have jobs should do. 

To me, this translates to two actionable things:
1. We've got to start teaching students to take initiative. You can't be the elite if you are a cog. We've got to start thinking about how to make students more entrepreneurial so they don't have to face a time when they have no "job"
2. we are currently letting mathematicians and engineers run the world without a clue about how to reason about ethics or about the social fabric that ties us together. That has to stop. We've got to go beyond "You just tell me the utility and I'll maximise it" to one that is a lot more examined. Otherwise the masses who get left behind are going to be (rightly) electing Trumpian candidates.  
3. Finally I agree with your actions. Academics got divorced from morality as a result of governmental crackdowns on activist campuses: http://www.irwinator.com/124/123.htm And look where it's got us. We cannot train an intellectual elite without moral values.