21 January 2005

"Justice" in Tulia, Texas

I've posted before on the topic of Tulia, Texas. In 1998, 45 African-Americans were rounded up in a drug bust spearheaded by Tom Coleman. 38 of those people wound up in jail. Most were convicted on evidence presented by Coleman, who told the court that he took notes on his thighs and arms with a magic marker. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote about this quite often, and through his columns it quickly became apparent that none of the convicted African-Americans were drug dealers, and that Coleman had perjured himself.

Now, we have, almost seven years later, a sort-of end to the story. Today's Austin American-Statesman reports that Texas Governor Rick Perry has pardoned 35 of the 38 people convicted. All the defendants won a six-million-dollar class action lawsuit against the county. And Coleman, the racist perjurer, got ten years. Make that ten years probation, not ten years in jail.

I suppose we can call that a measure of justice. But my lingering question is, what about the 3 people that Perry didn't pardon? What happened to them?

19 January 2005

The Controversy Continues

This morning's Boston Globe editorial page is full of Larry Summers. The editorial has the most measured viewpoint, as is to be expected. "In the present case, Summers deserves some credit for tackling a sticky issue. But missing, apparently, was the diplomacy that could have sparked a productive conversation. Fortunately, ample chance remains to talk, to dismiss myths and solve problems."

Really? I certainly don't see where problems are being solved personally. Indeed, of the 32 offers of tenure made at Harvard last year, only 4 were to women. Both diplomacy in discussing the problem and the actual "tackling a sticky issue" are absent from Mr Summers' leadership at Harvard.

Eileen McNamara picks up where the editorial left off. "To the untrained ear, that might sound like making it up out of whole cloth, but Larry Summers is the president of Harvard University, so let's just say his theory needs further study. Not that "anatomy is destiny" is exactly an original idea. Women have been hearing for eons that their lack of achievement, in the arts as well as the sciences, is the result of, variously, their weaker constitutions, their smaller brains, their delicate uteruses, and/or their unruly hormones."

Yes, as I pointed out yesterday, the supposed weak female constitution was once a reason advanced against women studying history. McNamara supposes that Mr Summers has a gender block (instead of a math block).

Lastly, Derrick Jackson makes the connection between Summers' gender example and similar issues with race I alluded to yesterday, only much more eloquently. "Now you have Summers, whose Faculty of Arts and Sciences offered only four of its last 32 tenured job spots to women. Despite offering only 12.5 percent of these plum positions to women, he felt utterly qualified to lecture women that we should open or reopen the debate as to whether females are intellectually different from men and, of course, in this context, natively inferior." Jackson goes on to say that "Summers's mind was fixed on a target as stale as a decade ago when Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein tried to revive notions of racial inferiority in their best-selling book "The Bell Curve." The authors cited IQ scores as fixed facts that should make us abandon the American dream."

The overwhelming conclusion here is that no one believes human biology to be so fixed that it determines aptitude. We don't believe it with regard to race; to attempt to inject the theory back into a discussion of gender is both wrong-headed and offensive.

All the comments note that Mr Summers spoke from notes, not a written draft. I find that to be unbelievable. As an historian who has given two conference papers recently, I always go with my remarks both written out and fully documented. Even if I edit as I talk, anyone who asks me a question about sources will get a prompt and accurate reply. For Summers to speak extemporaneously about such a controversial subjecy was irresponsible.
Luckily, The Harvard Crimson did some leg work there and tracked down two authors of one of the studies Mr Summers supposedly cited.
"Two sociologists whose research University President Lawrence H. Summers cited at an economics conference Friday said yesterday their findings do not support Summers’ suggestion that “innate differences” may account for the under-representation of women in the sciences.
University of California-Davis sociologist Kimberlee A. Shauman said that Summers’ remarks were “uninformed.” The other researcher, University of Michigan sociologist Yu Xie, said he accepted Summers’ comments as “scholarly propositions,” although he said his own analysis “goes against Larry’s suggestion that math ability is something innate.”
Xie and Shauman presented their findings at the National Bureau of Economic Research Friday afternoon, shortly after Summers’ remarks.
In an interview with The Crimson last night, Summers stressed that he only cited Xie and Shauman’s research as evidence that females are underrepresnted among the top 5 percent of test-takers on standardized assessments. Summers said the evidence for his speculative hypothesis that biological differences may partially account for this gender gap comes instead from scholars cited in Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker’s bestselling 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. "
Which scholars are these? The Crimson article does not say, and it seems vague and ill-thought out to me.
The controversy is growing on campus. As the Globe also reported today, some 50 women professors sent a letter of protest to Summers. "Melissa Franklin, a physics professor, said she wished that Harvard had "a president who can add something positive rather than something negative." And while she didn't call for Summers to resign, she said his remarks constituted "a resignable thing." I think I'm with Professor Franklin on this one. It will be interesting to see now if the controversy dies away or accelerates. Given that Summers has been less than forthcoming about the sources of the biology argument and the actual text of his remarks, I suspect the controversy is here to stay.

18 January 2005

Were President Summers' Comments Sexist?

The New York Times has picked up the story. The NYT has a bit more information on what Mr Summers thinks he said and what participants heard him say: ""I began by saying that the whole issue of gender equality was profoundly important and that we are taking major steps at Harvard to combat passive discrimination," he recalled in yesterday's interview. "Then I wanted to add some provocation to what I understand to be basically a social science discussion."

He discussed several factors that could help explain the underrepresentation of women. The first factor, he said, according to several participants, was that top positions on university math and engineering faculties require extraordinary commitments of time and energy, with many professors working 80-hour weeks in the same punishing schedules pursued by top lawyers, bankers and business executives. Few married women with children are willing to accept such sacrifices, he said."

OK, so Summers wanted to provoke thought. Here's what he said next: "In citing a second factor, Dr. Summers cited research showing that more high school boys than girls tend to score at very high and very low levels on standardized math tests, and that it was important to consider the possibility that such differences may stem from biological differences between the sexes."

In other words, innate, biological differences between the sexes might be a determinant in math and science proficiency. The question is, what research was Mr Summers citing? Is that research being conducted by reputable investigators?

I never want to rain on anyone's academic freedom parade. But I find it difficult to believe that any serious investigator has returned to thinking that boys' and girls' brains are different to the point that certain forms of academic inquiry are more difficult for girls than boys. To suggest seriously, or even for the purposes of argument and provocation, is to advance a sexist argument. Let me put it another way: imagine if Mr Summers had instead suggested that lower math scores among African-Americans than white Americans were the result of innate biological differences. Can you imagine the firestorm of controversy? It should be anathema for anyone, but especially a university president, to suggest something similar about women and men

Mr Summers has issued a press release stating that "My remarks have been misconstrued as suggesting that women lack the ability to succeed at the highest levels of math and science. I did not say that, nor do I believe it. " This clarifies nothing, however. Mr Summers, what precisely did you say and which studies precisely did you cite as evidence? Until Mr Summers furnishes that information and submits it to true academic dialogue, I'm standing by the assertion that his comments can and should be construed as sexist.

The New York Times article concludes with an interesting comment:

"Initially all of the questions were from women, and I think there was definitely a gender component to how people interpreted his remarks," Dr. Didion said. "Male colleagues didn't say much afterwards and later said they felt his comments were being blown out of context. Female colleagues were on the whole surprised by his comments."

Of course the men in the room were not upset. Their competence and innate abilities, whatever those are, were not being called into question.

Forty years ago, the Harvard History Department faculty were all male. Women PhD candidates were rare and could not look forward to gainful employment, and it was whispered that women were not innately smart enough to make good historians. Rumors persist even today that the great Samuel Eliot Morison did not allow Radcliffe women in his classroom. I am ashamed that the President of Harvard University is using supposed scientific data to perpetuate such stereotypes in the maths and sciences.

Give Bush a Brain!

Play the game. Good fun and an excellent "I really should be working on my dissertation" procrastination tool.

17 January 2005

Blogging at the AHA

Apparently, this blog came up at a meeting of H-Net editors at the AHA as an example of a not-anonymous graduate student blog. So, I guess that means that more people drop by than I know about and I should probably make some effort to post more than once a month.

(The AHA was an interesting event about which I'll have more to say, after I've finished grading and finished moving...that is to say, sometime in February after this blog's readership has lost interest in the subject.)

At any rate, I thought I should make commenting more effective on this site. After much struggling, I found that the easy way to do this was to update the template. So, here we are. You may now comment, easily, on my (a)musings. (Just for the record, you could comment before too, but the method was ridiculously arcane and only my father showed any interest in jumping through the hoops required.)

Innately Inferior

Harvard University President Larry Summers reportedly suggested at a conference this past weekend "that innate differences between the sexes could help explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers."

Wow. Summers told The Boston Globe that "he was discussing hypotheses based on the scholarly work assembled for the conference, not expressing his own views. He also said more research needs to be done on the issues."

I personally would love to know what serious researchers are out there still suggesting that women do not succeed in maths or sciences because women's brains are somehow ill-equipped to deal with mathematical and scientific concepts. It wasn't so long ago, after all, that women were not considered innately able to be teachers, nurses, soldiers, businesswomen, politicians, or historians for that matter. It seems that the stereotype of the young girl unable to do well in math or science is the last stereotype that needs to be broken, and now a man who is in a position to use his immense bully pulpit to stamp this stereotype out told an academic audience that "one of his daughters, who as a child was given two trucks in an effort at gender-neutral upbringing. Yet he said she named them ''daddy truck'' and ''baby truck,'' as if they were dolls." In Mr Summers' calculus, Daddy is Mr Math and Science; Mommy looks after the babies.

Mr Summers has thus far refused to release a tape or a transcript of his remarks, which allegedly led some audience members--women--to get up and leave. As a Harvard woman, I now suggest that Summers make his remarks public. After all, I would like to know just what my university president thinks I am innately capable of.

If Mr Summers does not release his remarks, perhaps we should remind him that women like Shirley Tilghman and Elaine Tuttle Hansen have proven that women are innately capable of leading academic institutions. Perhaps if Harvard really wants to improve the number of tenured women on the faculty, it might start with the President's Office.