Friday, April 22, 2011

The Personal is Professional?

Last summer, when I was developing the curriculum for my ORDER teaching module, I started with a plan that hit the highlights of every biology course I've ever taken and every popular science book I've ever read: cool experiments, wacky phenotypes, stories about the history of science, elegant examples of fundamental concepts. I wanted to borrow from the best in order to supplement the story of my own research. At an early course development meeting, Dr. Lynn listened to my ideas and then gently suggested that I rethink the entire curriculum. He reminded me that I was supposed to design a unique new course. "You are the selling point," he told the Teacher-Scholars. He strongly encouraged all of us to spend class time discussing our personal journeys into academia and our reasons for choosing to study the things that we study. We were positioned as models and mentors for our undergraduate students, and he wanted them to learn about our lives as well as our dissertations.

I was initially resistant to the idea. Why spend time on my undergraduate research experiences when I could be talking about Nobel laureates? But, ultimately, I heeded Dr. Lynn's advice and centered my classes squarely on my thesis and the topics surrounding it (including a day on animal research, during which I told personal stories about how that aspect of my work makes me feel, in addition to more formal discussions of ethics and regulations). It's impossible to say whether my students would have preferred my original plan, but I think they enjoyed the module. And, I've noticed that my own blog reading habits seem to confirm what Dr. Lynn was emphasizing: science is more compelling when scientists feel like real people rather than detached manuscript authors. I love Research Blogging, but I find myself more likely to skim those posts on other blogs, and I've noticed that my own posts attract more comments when I talk about my personal experiences than when I review an article.

Sometimes I skip writing here because I don't feel like I have time to compose a well-researched scholarly analysis on whatever topic has popped into my head. I feel pressure to meet a high standard because I blog under my real name and I want future professional contacts who read this to think of me as a Serious Scientist. Especially after learning that my adviser regularly includes links to this blog when she writes me letters of recommendation! (The realization left me feeling both proud and terrified, which seems to be the optimal emotional state for PIs to evoke in their trainees.)

But, what I value most about science blogs is the community, and how fellow bloggers give me a window into the lives of my peers and near-peer role models. If that's what I'm getting out of it, perhaps I should put more in, and write more of that sort of content.

I hope to follow through with more self-reflective writing in the future, although the thought still weirds me out a little. I am debating whether or not to write a series of posts on my experiences with some neurologically-relevant phenomena (I swear this is not code for recreational drug use). Many of my favorite bloggers who write about the intersection of science with family responsibilities, personal crises, and social factors are pseudonymous. Given my... "nymity?"... I'd appreciate thoughts on the line where community-building crosses into over-sharing.

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