Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Different paths

A lot of the people who read this blog are academics of some sort and sociologists in particular- and I'm fairly sure about that because I asked. What this means is that most of us have little, if any, experience with personal fame. Oh, don't get me wrong: some of us are pretty important in our own little corners of the world, but we don't have anything like the regard that accrues to some other folks who, I like to think, contribute less to society. Most of the time, I think that's a good thing. The job academics do is a little weird and I think it benefits from a certain amount of isolation and anonymity. If our research efforts were followed the way that, say, Barry Bonds' home runs are, I think we'd be in trouble. If nothing else, I'd hate to have to take drug tests every week to prove that I wasn't using illegal amounts of caffeine.

It's also the case that fame can do some pretty harsh things to people- especially if fame comes to them young. We all remember Drew Barrymore, who has an excellent image now, and was a cute little girl, but also went through a somewhat... troubled period. More recently we can think of Britney Spears, who has clearly been suffering rather a lot, as well as Lindsay Lohan, who is also experiencing some problems. Indeed, retrospectives about various celebrities are almost all stories of despair and personal failure. This is, perhaps, why such programs are so popular: there's something in many of us that delights in seeing the powerful and respected laid low.

And all that is why I'm so pleased that, now and then, there are some real exceptions. Particularly, every so often, there is an intersection between the cloistered world of academia and the glitzy world of fame. What on earth am I talking about? Why, I'm speaking of Danica McKellar, of course. You remember Danica, don't you? She's the child actress who played Winnie in the popular series The Wonder Years. What you may not know is that, since finishing that popular role, she has been pretty busy. Specifically, she has earned a BS in Mathematics from UCLA, graduating summa cum laude, and has co-published a proof that could be referred to as the "Chase-McKellar-Winn" theorem. Not exactly a history of booze and drugs but I suppose we can take it. More recently, she's received a lot of attention for publishing the book Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail, which encourages young women to pursue mathematics. The book, by the way, has received a favorable review from Tara Smith of Aetiology.

Now, I know that some folks have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, we all like to see someone encouraging girls to stick with math. Speaking personally, I figure that women have to account for about 51% of the total brainpower in our species, so it's a shame that so many cultures nudge women away from pursuits that fully harness that potential. So, I think this work has a lot of potential to help correct certain deleterious trends. On the other hand, some folks have criticized McKellar for perpetuating stereotypes about women- such as with that "without breaking a nail" bit. That may be and, indeed, McKellar is receiving as much attention as she is because our society frankly has a hard time believing that someone who looks like she does would be good at math. People who are good at math are supposed to look a bit different. In a sense, then, the attention the book is receiving itself reinforces certain ideas about women. One could also, I suppose, make the argument that this book increases the pressure on women to "do it all," a pressure that I'm told men don't experience.*

These are all reasonable points and I think that, to an extent, they're all correct. This book is a good way to try to reach young girls before they get turned off from mathematics but, along the way, it may also reinforce some potentially deleterious ideas. Such is life. Georg Simmel was pretty clear that most social mechanisms have multiple effects, so I don't see why we should be all that damned surprised about it now. The thing is, I expect this mixed-message approach is actually a major strength of the book, rather than a liability. Like it or not, women are expected to be certain things much as men are expected to be certain things, and it's difficult to get anyone, much less kids, to stop conforming. As a result, if you want to change some behaviors, you may have to reassure your target audience by allowing them to cling to certain others. I've had this experience in teaching gender to undergraduates. As a man, I am less often viewed as being a "feminazi" right off the bat, but I still take pains to try and couch some messages in terms that my male students will find palatable. Does this mean that I don't confront them with hard truths? No. Oh, hell no. But I do make a point of observing that treating women decently is what should be expected of a "real man." I think I get a fairly good response to it, too.

Look, I'm not saying we shouldn't be aware of the possible shortcomings of the book, but we also shouldn't overlook its virtues. There's a real possibility that Danica McKellar may help at least a few girls discover the beauty of mathematics and, in so doing, chip away at the stereotypes about women and math.

Who here has a problem with that?

* Pardon my skepticism, but I suspect that men feel an awful lot of pressure to "do it all" as well. We just feel it in different arenas and express our tensions about it in our own ways.

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