Where You Sit and What it Says About You

Where do you sit in the classroom? In school I always sat in the first row, right in front of the teacher. The first time I entered a PhD classroom I chose my seat well – the one in the side row at the back, where I was least likely to catch the professor’s eyes.

I preferred it when someone was on either side of me. It was a chance to get to know new faces, and more importantly, they were a good buffer between me and the professor. If I sank low enough in the chair my sidekicks hid me from her view.

I tried to get the same seat each week. It was a familiar and safe spot.

In another class I switched seats each week, partly to see if it made a difference and partly just to meet new people. Well, some students were rather annoyed by this. It seemed as if particular chairs were reserved in their name, in ink that only they could see, and that I had pinched it. It got me thinking why they were so upset and why I was more comfortable sitting in the same spot in class each week.

The answer lies in status quo bias. According to psychologists it is the human tendency to prefer things, ideas, people or positions that are familiar versus trying something new. Change carries risks and takes mental energy. Adhering to the status quo is so much easier. In my grandmother’s words it is better to stick to the devil you know than the one you don’t know.

The status quo bias seems to be our default position in a whole range of situations. It certainly is so when it comes to choosing an Internet provider. The current one is expensive. A month ago the condo sent out a flyer encouraging all to sign up with a cheaper company. The front desk staff said half of the residents had done so, and were pleased with the result. I had thrown away the flyer. With so many things on my plate and the stress of the PhD, I did not have the energy to make the switch even though it was considerably cheaper. This morning I promised the front desk guy I will switch before the month is out. I don’t want to disappoint him.

Black people don’t do outdoors. This seems to be another status quo bias. For a whole ton of reasons we see the outdoors as a white space where we are out of place. I canvassed my Black meet up group to see who would like to try camping for next year. Most of them giggled, shook their head and said why on earth would they want to do that? A few were interested. It is camping for one night only. On a site with flush toilets and showers. It is moot how many will actually come.

Status quo bias is inherently conservative, but it can be challenged, and hence changed. If there was more advertising showing Black people in the outdoors it would change the perception that we don’t belong.

The keeners in my PhD class were spread all around the room. I expected them to bunch up at the front. Where one sits does not does not seems to stereotype the chatterers, at least for graduate students. Back in high school the front rows were reserved for the nerds, keeners and talkers. The middle rows were for the masses. The slackers, the clowns and the daydreamers preferred the back rows.

Sitting up front has no effects on grades according to research. It is just as well. I like my seat on the far side in the back of the classroom. And yes I do get annoyed if someone snags it before I get to class.

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Older Academics: Get on Twitter to Boost your Career

It seemed like a great idea. Tweet all the academics featured in the journal, with a link to their article. It was a neat way of promoting the journal and the writers in one easy step. As the editorial assistant on the journal – student job to fund the PhD – I was adding value and not just sitting there staring at a screen all day.

It didn’t work.

My great idea sank after the third tweet. I found out that many of the academics were not Twitter. At first I thought it was just the ones featured in a Canadian journal of cultural studies. Maybe it was our usual reticence about promoting oneself. It turned out that age was the issue.

Academics under 40 used Twitter. Academics over 40 years of age did not.

The younger crowd grew up with social media. They made and consumed millions of posts on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or other platforms. Social media was as familiar to them as the pimples on their faces.

The older crowd of academics are familiar with the wrinkles on their faces, but do not know how or appreciate the value of sharing them on social media. They are missing a great opportunity for promoting themselves and their work.

Especially for middling academics – the majority of us – who now realise that their cutting edge research has generated little change but has caused plenty of paper cuts.

Using social media is one way of creating a tiny, perfect universe of followers who are interested in the academic’s ideas. It’s better than the global shrug of indifference.

So here are the benefits of using Twitter:

1. Promote Yourself. And the vitally important work you are doing – even if that importance is just in your own mind. A tweet can connect you to others interested in the same area.

2. Find Friends and Allies. Twitter is an efficient way of finding others who are interested in your area of work. It increases the possibility of collaboration on research projects or conference presentations. Your Twitter followers can give you feedback on work in progress.

3. Spy on the Competition. Conversations on Twitter are fast and fleeting. It is a great way of checking out what your competitors are doing, thinking or writing about. Savour that feeling of realizing that you have more followers than your rivals.

4. Cross Boundaries. Academics are forced to focus on a narrow area if they want to be successful. With Twitter those boundaries can be crossed by using and following hashtags that appeal to a wide range of users. For example, #RaceAndSpace tweets are from academics in social justice, geography, outdoors recreation and conservation.

5. Follow the News in your Field. I use Twitter to find out about the latest jobs, conferences, calls for papers and funding opportunities. These are announced long before they reach print publication or get buried on specialist websites.

6. Boost Book Sales. Use Twitter to promote your old and new books. A weekly tweet with a link to the books will do wonders of the sales. Or at least raise awareness that your books are out there, waiting to be read.

7. Gossips and Scandals. Who got fired and why? Who is being sued? How did the university handle/cover that up? Twitter is fantastic for showing the hidden side of academia and what people really think about the hot potato issues of the day. You can join in the conversations or just listen to them. Either way it is riveting.

Twitter is the electronic equivalent of the chats around the office water cooler. We know that the best conversations often happen there.

So older academics, get over your fear or condescension about social media. Get on Twitter. It takes about a minute to set up an account. Do so and start tweeting. Let the world know about you and the vitally important work you are doing.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Meet the New Minorities in PhD Programmes – It’s Men

Thank goodness I am doing a PhD at mid-life. I don’t have to worry about trying to find a husband among the fellow graduates. As it is, I am having a hard time trying to find the men in the seminars. They are outnumbered, almost five to one, by women.

This was surprising to me as I had expected the reverse. I guess a lot has changed since the days of my first degree, where women were the minority in most subjects. From the latest Statistics Canada report the majority of graduates are now female, from the first all the way up to the third degrees. We have left the men behind. They are struggling, trying to dust themselves off as they face the new competition – the one dressed in heels and pink lipstick.

Female graduates dominate the traditional feminine fields of health and education – so that explains why there are so men in my education department. The number of female science graduates is increasing faster than the men are able to hold the line. Engineering is the last area where men are a clear majority, outnumbering women three to one. But even here women are making slow but steady gains.

Back in the day, way back when I was doing my first degree, my friend and I stood out in the faculties. There were about 120 male undergraduates in her department. She was one of only three women studying physics. And she was the only Black person there as well. I had better odds, as there was another Black woman finishing a chemistry degree. And there was a Jamaican guy doing his PhD in the department. They did their best to mentor me.

Why are women doing so much better in universities today?  A century ago, we were not allowed to even enter the buildings. Our brains were supposed to be so feeble that an abstract idea could permanently ruin them. Women were first allowed to enter university in Canada in 1877. In Britain it was 1878 and in the USA it was 1831.

So what has changed? Over the century, have women gotten smarter and men dumber? That can’t be right as evolution does not move that fast – usually.

It seems to be a combination of reasons. Women are better at learning: we know how to sit still, listen to the teacher and we do the homework. All of this leads to higher grades and therefore a better chance of getting into university.

The job market has shifted from brawn to brains, increasing careers options for the educated, and decreasing it for those who are not. This means women have an incentive to stay in school and profit from the knowledge-driven economy.

The third reason is sex. Women can have the fun without the risk of getting knocked up thanks to the contraceptive pill. As they can control their fertility and have fewer children, it leaves more time to get an education and pursue a career.

We will need an equity programme for the next generation of PhD students; to ensure that the men, the new weaker sex, will have a chance to sit at the academic table.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Why Do I Feel Like a Fraud?

“What on earth am I doing here? I don’t understand a word of what they are saying.” The thoughts hammered in my head as I looked around the room. Everyone looked younger and smarter than me.

I chose my seat well – the one in the corner, close to the exit, at the back of the room. My confidence was as high as my toenails – and I had forgotten to paint them.

The speakers spoke without notes. I heard them talk of the wonderful opportunities in the department, the encouragement to discuss ideas and to be part of an academic community.

I sat with my arms folded trying to follow them. My head throbbed. I must have made a mistake. My wonderful research idea seemed rather silly now as I could not follow the speakers’ words.

“Why on earth did I want to go back to school at mid-life?” Other things were an easier way out of my mid-life crisis – skydiving; anonymous sex, lots of it; volunteering at the dog shelter. But I had tried none of those. Instead I chose to study for a PhD.

Professor this and professor that gave speeches. I recognized some of the names – they wrote the articles and books that I read and cited in my application. I never expected to meet them in the flesh. My confidence toppled to the floor – I could not think of a single question to ask them.

One professor asked about my thesis. She stopped me half way through saying she remembered the application and was glad to see that I had made it through. I thanked her, she was just being kind I thought.

The other students tried to reassure me that I was in the right place and would soon pick up the lingo. It seemed easier to learn Sanskrit, Ancient Greek or Cree. I slunk out of the room.

The imposter syndrome is quite common among first year PhD students, I later learned. We are used to being seen as egg-heads, geeks or nerds, but now we feel like fakes – seemingly smart on the outside, but stupid inside.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London