Building a new normal

Oct 21 2013 Published by under Academia, Activism, Uncategorized

This is the post about Bora. And the "community" that I thought was there. There's been other stuff going on as well. But this one is about Bora.

 

I warn you all that this post is very hard for me. Normally what you see here, even the longer ranting or opinion pieces on academic life, even the big reviews on opponent process theory or long posts on a paper? Those are drafted and posted on the fly. I hammer them out in a single sitting, fast as you like, and throw them onto the internet. Maybe I'll have a friend or two look over an opinion post. But usually not.

But this? This I went over, over and over, in my head. This I took notes for. I wrote an OUTLINE. It's the only way I feel I can fit all the thoughts and feelings in, and even then, I don't think that I'll hit them all.

I don't process on the internet. I don't process on twitter or write posts trying to understand my feelings. I never have, I probably never will. Partially because, when I process, I do so in far more than 140 characters. Partially because, at this point, if I say something I regret... I say it to 23,000 people. And I shudder at the idea of saying something wrong, or something hurtful to someone else, to 23,000 people. And it's partially because I just can't react that fast. It means I've been quiet on a lot of issues, even though people have told me I need to say something. I do want to say something. I just want to make sure I've processed, and that it's the thing I need to say. My silence does NOT mean I do not support the victims. Far from it.

It's taken me a lot of time to process. In the first few days, I drank more than was good for me, I admit. I ran more than was good for me, too (which is very possible). More miles vanished under my heels in two days than I'd run in the previous 10 days combined. I would think I felt better, and come back to a fresh cut. I went whole days forgetting to eat. Not sleeping, waking up in a panic thinking it couldn't be this way.

I know this seems like an over-reaction. But I felt like my world was falling down. Science blogging, BORA, who introduced me to science blogging, made me love science again. Bora, and his guidance, got me where I am. Entering into the world of science blogging showed me where my real talent lay. It gave me an entree into a new career that I am unbelievably excited about. I'm so glad to have found something that I'm good at, and that I love. For all this, I thanked Bora. I still do. Science blogging has become my world. It contains most of my friends. It's no longer a world I can step away from and back into the lab. It's my career now. My life.

But it turns out...Bora was not the man I thought he was. I trusted him implicitly. He told me to jump blogs, I would jump. He told me to apply for something, I would. Without hesitation. To me, he was a mentor. Almost paternal. He told me I was his oldest blogdaughter (from way back in '08). He was never inappropriate to me.

But he was horrible, horrible, to others. And it was chilling, and nauseating, to read. I met Bora like all of them did. In a coffee shop. Alone. Nervous. I was no different.

And now I wonder if I was just being used for my sense of loyalty. I think it's obvious to many people who know me. My college boss from the old coffee shop used to tell me I was like a big labrador retriever. I LIKE you! I like you all! I want you to like ME! I trust you implicitly and I think you're GREAT. And if you knock me down, I'll come bounding back, still thinking we're buds. I'm very, very loyal to my friends. They make mistakes, and I know that. Often, I forgive them instantly.

But when those mistakes HURT people. Hurt many, many people. Hurt their own families, possibly beyond repair. Hurt careers. Use power to take what they want. Lie to me. Lie to everyone. Hurt MY FRIENDS.

Even the friendliest dog has a line.

I feel terrible for his victims. I feel terrible that my faith in Bora, in a way, kept him able to harass others. I admire their bravery, their grace. I am with them in every way.

People have been having the uncomfortable, difficult, painful conversations. I've been having a lot of them myself. I have found out that this thing I thought was my community...was not a community to everyone. I have found out that where I tried to be inclusive...people felt excluded. This was not the "community" of everyone at all. I have found that the ScienceOnline meeting, the place where I felt the safest I have ever felt outside my own house...people did not feel safe.

Bora is not the man I thought he was. And the science communication community was not the place I thought it was.

The whole week has been full of downs. But toward the end. I started to see #ripples of hope. Not just the hashtag (though that alone is brilliant), but from other bloggers, saying, we can, in the future, be better. We want to be better. We WILL be better. People taking decisive action.

And I have been incredibly impressed with many of my colleagues. Yes, people fought, and jumped to conclusions, and etc. But there have been no death threats or rape threats, and compared to some communities I've seen...well I'm impressed. I always thought I wrote with and worked with some amazingly good people. Now, I KNOW it.

And it gives me hope. It makes me believe we can do better. It has made me think HARD about how I behave at conferences. Am I friendly? Am I too friendly? Do I exclude people by accident, without knowing? Am I ever in power over someone...even when I may not realize it?

I may have to change how I operate. All of us may. Our rose colored glasses are gone. But I am willing to change. I think many people are. They are willing to admit that what we had...wasn't as great as we thought. And willing to help build a new normal. I hope it's teaching us to listen. I hope it's teaching us to see. Even when we don't like it.

I'm working with some people to help. I would like to help make Science Online the amazing experience I have had for as many people as I can. I would like to make it safe. I've got a few ideas, and I've seen some great ones around. But does anyone else have ideas? Twitter has been a free-flowing stream, and I don't want things that I could help with to flow past. Please please put them in the comments. I'd love to keep track. I'd love to help build a new, better, more trustworthy normal.

 

ADDENDUM: ScienceOnline is very committed to making stuff better. Karyn is collected responses. So please if you have ideas, send her a summary (not a link or a storify or a tweet, a summary) to karyn@scienceonline.com. Together we can make this better.

35 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The greatest realization you can make is that success, no matter how modest, changes power dynamics. One of the reasons that people in academics get into trouble is that many never escape the mindset of graduate student trying to defend, postdoc trying to get a job and/or assistant professor trying to make tenure. No matter how successful many still see themselves as the powerless peon, just like anyone else. They never notice that the other voices have stopped speaking.

    • scicurious says:

      Wise words indeed, Monkey. I still see myself as the clueless blogger just starting out.

      • drugmonkey says:

        Let's just say I am familiar with the phenotype of the Full Professor and decades-long department chair who never, ever really got past the mental state of the young and brash assistant professor made to wait an extra year for tenure because of "lack of collegiality with the senior faculty".

        It is an amazing thing to see, yes, but it is a strong caution to everyone else. Your (the general you) inability to see how you look to those with less power and standing than yourself may be less ridiculous but it is still there, ready to bite you.

        • Paul Winkler says:

          The important question here, I think, is how does one find out how one looks "to those with less power and standing than yourself"?

          And I think the answer is, always be searching and soliciting that feedback. When you stop looking, you lose perspective and end up (hopefully) embarrassed, maybe even disgraced.

    • I'd second that notion. In German and other languages, there are formal and informal pronouns to address people. Even after so many years, I'm only now slowly starting to get used to students addressing me formally. However, the formal address at least serves as a constant reminder of the power (and age) differential. For some of my mentors, I'd even feel uneasy if they ever offered me first-name informality - I *want* to look up to them. It's not equally obvious when one is on a first name basis essentially instantly, virtually regardless of age or status differences - especially when coming from a cultural background where informality commonly conveys a certain degree of closeness.

      Staying/Becoming aware of power differentials is one major lesson I'm taking from the past events.

  • mineralphys says:

    Here's my take on how to move forward:

    http://mineralphys.blogspot.com/2013/10/pyramids.html

  • It's now up to us to fill Bora's shoes, to exceed the high standards that he set for everyone, and to not forget.

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/the-curious-wavefunction/2013/10/21/despair-and-hope-on-scientific-american-blogs/

    • razib says:

      as i said on twitter, if you want to maintain an egalitarian reality there can't/shouldn't be any one person who fills his shoes. those shoes were too big, and they stomped, even if he never meant it to go that direction. bora was an arbiter. it was smart to cultivate him. i was already established before bora even became a notable blogger, and i really didn't need his help, but i consciously was aware that if he and i came to serious loggerheads (it had happened explosively pre-2005; i don't pull punches when i think someone's full of crap) it wasn't just between bora and me, it would be between 'the community' and me. i didn't want to deal with the hassle so i made and effort to be as cordial and possible. the stakes would have been higher if i was trying to 'make it.'

      a concrete example, a friend of mine who was thinking about becoming a serious blogger, and had started his own blog which has non-trivial traffic, was brought to ScienceBlogs' attention in 2006. when the manager asked in the forums about this blogger, bora blew a gasket because this blogger did not delete the comments from another blogger who bora found objectionable because of that commenter's politics (on reasonable grounds from bora's perspective to be fair, this guy was very conservative, which bora no like :-). to make a long story short, bora admitted he made an emotional response without even reading the blog in detail, but other people pretty much went along with him because they had no strong opinion, and the manager decided to pass on my friend's blog in part because the only major reaction was negative (i was positive, but i didn't want to go crazy because the guy was someone i knew and i was biased). my friend is fine. he now has a tenure track job at a research university. but we lost the opportunity for someone to flourish as a communicator who did some interesting science. and, as it happens, he is also a berkeley liberal (literally went to berkeley) whose politics were exactly the same as bora's. he simply did not monitor comments much (he had no idea what i was talking about at first when i explained what happened as to why he was rejected).

      i give this example to show that bora had a lot of power because of enthusiasm and strength of opinion even back in 2006, but it wasn't always grounded in clear and rational reflection about the facts at hand. i can't imagine how it must have been by 2010 and later, as he strode the science blogosphere like a colossus. as i note above my strategy was just to avoid getting his notice too much because i didn't want to deal with the hassle. but his preferences and biases surely had a major impact on who got promoted, and who didn't. i don't necessarily think this is wrong, as i don't think people can get rid of biases, or all biases are bad. but i wish there was more transparency and honesty about this sort of thing, though that's hard when you are 'inside' (it's more obvious when you're excluded and must tread a touch gingerly).

      finally, groups rise an fall. so they will rise again, and fall again. the process playing out is sad and stressful, but inevitable.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asabiyyah

      p.s. i know i violated the understanding that what happened in the SB forums stays in the SB forums. but from where i stand the social cohesion which that norm preserved is basically a rank and ripe corpse at this point. autopsy time.

      p.p.s. always enjoyed your blog scicurious since the beginning. even the gross stuff. sometimes talent will rise no matter the background conditions. yours would have.

      • scicurious says:

        Thanks, Razib. I think this is an important perspective.

        And I'm super flattered you commented and like the blog. :) Always find your stuff interesting reading!

      • Yes, no one person should try to fill those shoes. That's why I note in my post that we should do it collectively so that we can actually exceed the quality of bloggers that Bora picked. As others have noted, most of the bloggers that he picked were undoubtedly good (the proof is in these very pages).

  • Matt Shipman says:

    There's been an enormous amount of frank discussion over the past week or so in the online scicomm community about topics that a lot of people are not comfortable discussing. I've seen a lot of smart, brave people sharing their experiences and feelings openly - and that takes guts. Like you, I'm hoping (and hopeful) that this will lead to a stronger and more open scicomm community, where all members can feel welcome and safe. I know that doesn't happen quickly, but I'd like to think that this moves us all in the right direction.

    I've been relatively quiet on these issues, other than to be supportive of individuals who have shared their personal experiences. The one thing I have been vocal about is the need to be self-aware and behave responsibly. However, rather than write a cogent blog post, as you have, I expressed myself through a series of tweets. I hope it is more useful than rambling. I Storified them here: http://storify.com/ShipLives/some-thoughts-on-behaving-responsibly

  • David Ropeik says:

    I've been thinking about you, among many others. Worrying a bit. There certainly is community here. And if there is an unsettling lesson about being a bit more cautious and trusting a wee bit less, there are also affirming lessons about empowerment, and friendships showing up when called upon, and openness...

  • Thank you for sharing.

    "Do I exclude people by accident, without knowing?"

    This really resonated with me, and is something I always want to keep in check.

    In March I was invited to a small workshop on communicating Science. There were three (broad-brushing here) groups of people at the workshop: 1) Tenured scientists who knew each other; 2) Science bloggers/writers who knew each other; and, 3) The rest of us. For most of the workshop it seemed like (from my perspective) that it was group 1 talking amongst themselves, group 2 talking amongst themselves, and group 3 trying in vain to contribute. But, from watching the dynamics, it was clear that groups 1 and 2 had a lot of expertise, and all felt their opinions were valuable (which they were), and they were very interested to hear what other people they knew (from groups 1 and 2) had to say (which was also good). It wasn't that group 3 was intentionally excluded, we were just unknowns, and with limited time, people wanted to hear from their friends & colleagues.

    It seems like, without conscious work to prevent it, any community will become an echo chamber, but no one will realize it because they're all in too deep together. That said, we all have to choose how to focus our limited energy, and can't engage every new person we meet.

    On a bright note, I've experienced that there are many people in the science & science writing communities who have been very willing to interact with "unknowns", and this is what makes it so wonderful.

  • Oh Sci, I feel so much of what you're feeling here from my own little #sciart zone. Good on you for processing so coherently and with such strong writing, as always.

    I've been a mess as well, not a blog-child, but maybe the royal blog-court painter. Wasn't able to coherently work on any artwork until last night.

    After readings this, maybe I'm ready to try writing again too. Thanks.

    • scicurious says:

      Thanks Glendon. I know how you feel. The writing really helped actually...I'm kind of cheerful.

      Could also be the music though: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Qqwtrd8PzA

      • CM Doran says:

        Thanks for writing.
        I'm glad you spoke honestly of your loyalty.
        Bora supported my start in writing too, without incident. I'll always be grateful for his encouragement...and I had to reply here because I've followed you and Glendon for a while now.
        I am sorry.
        ....and what happens to Open Lab now? ...another huge boost to new writers...

  • AcademicLurker says:

    Yes, people fought, and jumped to conclusions, and etc. But there have been no death threats or rape threats, and compared to some communities I've seen...well I'm impressed.

    One of the few brights spots in all this is that the community response has been fairly adult and thoughtful.

    When this first broke I sort of braced myself for the wagon circling, excuses, abuse towards the women who spoke up, rape threats & etc. It's heartening to see that that response is not as completely inevitable as I had come to believe.

  • Blaise Pascal says:

    Speaking as an outsider here -- someone who reads a lot of science blogs, but is not a science blogger -- I would venture that one of the reasons there are no death/rape threats, or similar circling of the wagons, is that the circle of affected people is relatively small, compared to other seemingly similar revelations.

    It is evident that Bora was very important within the science blogging community. It is evident that he was very well liked -- loved, even -- within the science blogging community. The general outpouring of emotion across several of the blogs I read makes this clear. People are shocked, people are angry, people are confused by what to do or how to react, people are processing it, and they are processing it publically.

    But I would not be surprised if a large portion of your 23,000 readers, myself included, initially had the reaction of "Bora who?". The community of science bloggers is much smaller than the audience it reaches on a daily basis, and the internal politics of that community are mostly unknown outside of it. I now know him by his impact on this community, a community I rarely see acting as a community (rather than as individual bloggers) -- and a negative impact at that.

    I don't believe that many outside the science-blogging community have the emotional investment in Bora necessary to defend him -- and therefore their investment in him -- to the point of threats. It's not like someone who got into science because of Cosmos and refuses to believe Sagan was a pothead, and thus "defends' Sagan against this charge regardless of the truth. Those emotionally invested in Bora are also those most helped by him, betrayed by his actions. And therefore aren't likely to defend him, but rather commiserate with the others.

    At least, that's how it looks from the outside.

    One recurring concern I've seen on various blogs is some variant of "Did I get this gig because Bora was hitting on me, and not my talent? Am I a fraud?". My answer response is: Bora may have taught you how to blog, may have got you your foot in the door, but Bora didn't, couldn't, force your readers to read. We are here for you, not Bora. We come back for you, not Bora.

  • Neurobites says:

    Beautifully put Sci. I was just having a discussion with a friend about how I can't process things quickly, that everything needs to marinate in my brain. It took me two days just to full comprehend what DNLee went through and how she may be feeling. Call it being slow, being emotionally blunted, call it whatever you like, it's just the way I operate in an emotionally charged situation.

    I think its easy to jump to assumptions and it's easy to point fingers when emotions are charged, especially on those who don't respond to situations similar to yours. What I am trying to say is that, I understand and appreciate your process. I love it.
    The Online Science community is interesting. There are the "In" crowds and the "others" but I think it's just a matter of the "others" proactively introducing themselves, this is easier when you meet in conferences. I count myself as part of the "others" and the community has been wonderful. Aside from yourself Sci (we all know you're wonderful), other bloggers have recommended things to improve our blog and have introduced us to other bloggers in our areas. Sure there are a couple of people, who don't seem overtly friendly, but that is just human nature and can be found in alot of communities. People like you, who are quick to mentor, quick to share tips are who make this community :)

  • arvind says:

    (hugs)

  • Linda says:

    After reading this post, "Building a New Normal" and the comments, the world "normal" overshadowed all my thoughts. Normal, by my definition, is what is considered by our society as what is commonly perceived as within the range of what is "acceptable" behavior and actions that is common, not abnormal, to the majority.

    I state the above because it raised a question to me. "Why do you feel, or believe, a "New Normal" is necessary or required?" Is not your blog written by you, with your own thoughts and ideas? If so, a "New Normal" is like saying you need to "Build" a "New You".

    As far as Bora goes, remember he is human, as are you, I, and all humanity. Unfortunately we humans are not infallible, nor are we always true to ourselves or others. I am truly sorry for you and what he has done; however, you can learn from that just as you learned from him in beginning your blogging. Do we not learn more by failure than success?

    Science, as you know, stays true to itself even when we get it wrong! My strongest opinion to your post is:

    Stay true to yourself and your beliefs and blog away accordingly. You will reap the benefits of confidence in yourself and we will reap the benefits of your wisdom.

    Linda

    • scicurious says:

      Hi Linda,

      Thanks for this. I think by "normal", I mean that I want to help build a "community" that is better, more encouraging of diversity, and less blind to the bad things that can come out of power differences, such as harassment. I think that we can do this, and I think that we want to.

      I am aware that humans are fallible. But I am also aware of how many of us ended up used, as Bora asked us for our support even before we knew what was going to happen. I, and all of us, have been lied to and used, and that's a hard thing to forgive. Especially when it has probably hurt the careers and prospects of other people. It's one thing to hurt my feelings. It's quite another to hurt someone's career, to make them feel scared.

      I think from this we can learn to be more careful. To have an eye out for this behavior, and to keep safe spaces open for people who need them. That's a really important thing and I hope we can do it going forward.

  • Linda says:

    Thank you for the clarification and I completely agree with you. You are a remarkable person to forge ahead to make a new and exciting beginning out of what was used selfishly without regard for those he deeply hurt. Yet, please consider forgiveness; not for his sake, but yours and "the community".

    Blessings to you and yours and your endeavors.

    Linda

  • jublke says:

    I would suggest somehow mixing up the groups when it comes to Science Online dinner functions. I found Science Online 2010 to be very much like Melissa described above and the seating at dinner was a microcosm of this experience. Seating - even without assigned seats - was stratified by power. Those with book deals sat closest to the podium, followed by magazine editors and well-known bloggers, then came the lesser known bloggers. As a completely unknown blogger, I sat so far in the back of the room that I was practically in the hall. I remember telling a friend that I was so far down on the pecking order that I wasn't even on the list. It was discouraging.

    I mention this only because with the ongoing dialogue, I think there's a real opportunity for change here and this one is an easy fix. Have a few activities specifically designed to make the newcomers feel welcome. As a newbie, I found it hard to mingle with folks - everyone had their nose in an electronic device, blogging! - and the alcohol-fueled mixers weren't my thing.

    Thanks for keeping the dialogue going and hugs for all you are going through.

    • scicurious says:

      Hi Jublke,

      Did we meet at Scio? I hope we did! I always want to meet people, but I'm also often running around like a demented squirrel.

      I think this is a great idea. Would you be willing to email it to Karyn, the CFO of ScienceOnline, who's address is listed above? She's trying to collect ideas like this and I'm sure yours would be very welcome.

      • jublke says:

        Done. Frankly, SciO was a whirlwind for me. And I travelled down to NC with my hubby and three kids in tow (the youngest wasn't quite a year yet and I was still nursing), so I was quite frazzled myself. It's nice to chat with you now, even under these difficult (confusing? disorienting?) circumstances.

    • drugmonkey says:

      You have me seriously considering wearing a nametag at SFN BANTER this year.

  • Elia says:

    I attended ScienceOnline 2010 (and met you briefly). On the one hand, I felt more comfortable participating at this meeting than I have at any other, including NASW annual meetings and scientific meetings I've attended. On the other hand, I did notice a certain cliquishness at the meeting that made me a bit uncomfortable. My suggestion would be to infuse new blood to the ScienceOnline meetings by making sure that a certain proportion of participants/registrants and session/panel leaders are new to the meeting, and perhaps even stipulating that people who have led a session for X years in a row must take at least one year off from doing so. There are probably other ways to do this as well--these are just a couple of ideas. I'll send these to Karyn as well.

    • Andy says:

      I am so glad to hear I wasn't the only one having these feelings! I did love ScienceOnline when I attended (2010 and 2012), but absolutely saw that same cliquishness. Not that folks weren't welcoming, but when a large portion of the program at the banquet was interspersed with in-jokes between various members of the Science Blogs community (men and women alike), it was a little off-putting for a newcomer. I totally understand how it is when together with good friends, but I think some careful reflection about how we all present ourselves would not be a bad thing.

  • Isabel says:

    "And the science communication community was not the place I thought it was." I am not sure I have ever witnessed such an apparent need for community. I wonder why Bora had/was given so much power in peoples' minds. He was not unlike a cult leader.

    Individuals, professionals, breaking all the rules with new media, where anyone can start a blog and reach an audience etc, end up in the worst old school example of heirarchy complete with pervy white guy power controlling access. How did that happen?

    What would the state of science blogging be today, if Bora had never appeared on the scene? Any different? maybe possibly better?

  • Mariam says:

    Perspective and power, the two terms really spoke to me. As we stride forward we tend to lose perspective and we either gain power, even though it may not fee like it. Other feel the power and we lose ourselves.

    It's really hard to keep in mind the reasons why we pursue what we want, we have goals, motivations, and intentions, but what happens when we actually reach them? Do we forget and get lost in the serendipity of accomplishing or do take the time to step back and revaluate.

    It's hard to face what we truly have to deal with no matter how much work we hid under, to keep us busy, but one day it will catch up and then what.

    I came across your blog recently today. The title "Can we build a new normal", for some reason it really spoke to me. Even though I'm relatively young, what you wrote about is a reality among those in academia. Professor's perspectives, student's perspective, who is going to make it to and who is ultimately going to fail, where my life is going, and where is my career going.

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