Friday, 12 June 2015

Not exacty about Tim Hunt

I could, and perhaps will, write about Tim Hunt's absurd comments about the "problems" of women working in science labs. Since everyone seems to be writing about it, and there's a splendid selection of #distractinglysexy pictures on Twitter where other female scientists are mocking the idea, I'll leave it for now, and instead play the blogging equivalent of word-association*. One of my old supervisors at university has written an article on Huffington Post about Tim Hunt's comments and it produced a strong visceral reaction in me.

Just the act of seeing her name took me back to my second year at university, took me back to sitting in her study during a supervision on Quantum Mechanics, took me back to crying in frustration and desperation that I couldn't understand, took me back to feeling sick with fear before a supervision, took me back to sitting at my desk trying and failing to work through the problems we'd been set, took me back to being told I was inadequate and would never master physics unless I gave up all my outside interests and focused only on working. I actually sat, staring at the screen with my hands shaking and my heart in my mouth as I relived the feelings.

Before anything else I should point out that Professor Claudia Eberlein was (and presumably still is) a superb theoretical physicist. I have absolutely no doubts about her professional skills, or indeed about whether she is a delightful person. I never had the opportunity or inclination to know her socially, though I have been told she is lovely.

She is also probably a good teacher for some people. I was not one of those people. Maybe she never realised how uncertain and insecure and lacking in confidence I was? Maybe she didn't think that should matter. Maybe in the very short time, and with the high work load we had, there wasn't time to take account of my crushing lack of confidence. Whatever the reason, being reduced to tears by a supervisor on a regular basis, having "insufficient" or "inadequate" or sometimes simply "no" written on my work, being told I would never be a physicist, none of these were things that did anything other than convince me even further that I couldn't do it, couldn't understand, was too stupid, too lazy, too useless.

Start with someone who doubts themselves, and reinforce those doubts, and you have a whimpering wreck before you know it. Is that Professor Eberlein's fault? Perhaps not, except, in her article she says:

"I have on a few occasions seen staff cry, men as well as women, but it would never have occurred to me to see this as a sign of them somehow not being suitable scientists; I would have just been concerned to address whatever got them into such a distressed state, and I would question the suitability of any director or manager not having the same priority. If there were a science department where women being reduced to tears were not an isolated instance, then I would ask what in that work environment has led to such extreme frustration that got them into such distress."

And I can't help but think - where was this attitude when you were reducing me to tears? Where was the empathy and the concern then? Or is it only a problem if the reason a girl is crying is because she's been discriminated against? Straight forward unkindness and aggression is OK? Where was the "suitability of a manager" when you were spending the entire hour of our supervision discussing the finer subtleties of one of the questions with my (tediously brilliant) supervision partner, ignoring me entirely until the end when you simply told me that I need to try the problems again as I clearly hadn't understood? That wasn't teaching. It's true, I wasn't as accomplished as my supervision partner, but I couldn't help but think that perhaps that meant I needed more teaching not less.

After spending a year being told that I was failing, inadequate and lazy, I was both surprised and mystified by the uplifting pep-talk Professor Eberlein gave a small group of us at the end of the year, just before our exams. She assured us we were all capable of achieving firsts, that we were all just as good as any man could ever be, not to doubt ourselves and not to let others tell us we couldn't do anything any man could do.

I got a third that year.

I sat in my Quantum Mechanics exam crying, and chewing my finger. I actually managed to bite my finger so hard and repeatedly I severed the nerves in the back of it and it was many months before I regained feeling in it. I barely answered any questions. I can't blame Professor Eberlein for that. I'd got my exam timetable written down arse-about-face, and went into that exam expecting it to be on Thermodynamics and Solid State Physics. The shock of turning the paper over and being confronted with QM was more than I could handle.

However, the combination of being convinced I would never master QM, and then utterly, utterly ballsing up the exams meant that when given a choice between taking a three-year degree or staying on for an extended four-year degree, I opted for the three-year. Anything to escape from the exams and the feeling of being utterly useless at theoretical physics.

I got a 2(i) at the end of my third year.

I got firsts and starred firsts for my final year project work.

I won a prize for my experimental work.

I found my niche. It turns out it's not theoretical physics, it's experimental physics, and especially where that overlaps with engineering. (Does that make me Leonard instead of Sheldon? Or, please no, not Howard!**)

A few months ago, I found my old supervision work in the loft. I instantly recognised Claudia Eberlein's handwriting on it. Even after 20 years I would recognise her writing anywhere. Especially "Insuff." which is what she was reduced to when she was tired of writing "Insufficient". And I flicked through it. I was surprised to discover how many ticks there were. How many times she'd written "Very good" or "good" or even "nearly". How is it that I remembered so vividly, painfully, humiliatingly all the "inadequate"s, "insufficient"s and "try again"s, and none of the things that I'd done right?

So, perhaps I should reconsider my view of myself and Quantum Mechanics? I still don't think Professor Eberlein did me any favours - any teaching style that reduces a pupil to tears is probably not a good one, no matter how lacking in self-confidence the pupil. But despite her criticisms, I wasn't actually that bad. I was just lousy at taking note of the times I was praised, but clung like a limpet to the times I was criticised. And that's definitely my problem and not Professor Eberlein's. It's a problem I still have, and it's still not her fault.

So, Professor Eberlein, I salute you as an excellent physicist, and forgive you for your somewhat harsh teaching methods. You were not as critical as my memory is fooling me into thinking, and I wasn't as bad at Quantum Mechanics as it felt at the time, it's just that I took the criticism to heart and cried like a girl... oh... hang on... isn't that where this all started?***

* For reasons that escape me, my family's own version of a word-association game was called "Partridge Jumping". Not only did you have to be prepared to defend the logic behind your association, but every time you added a word you had to recite the entire list of words backwards from where you were adding a word. Yes, we did consider this fun as children.

** I'm hoping you'll get the reference to the Big Bang Theory, but I'm aware that sitcoms about physicists aren't everyone's cup of tea. They should be, along with Doctor Who, but there's no accounting for taste. Take Big Bear for example, despite me loving him to bits he doesn't actually like either the Big Bang Theory or Doctor Who. It's a miracle we're still married.

*** This is a joke.

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