Saturday, September 21, 2019

Ten Years Writing Mermaid's Tales

It's been a decade since I first posted here. 

It's difficult to know what to write to commemorate my blogoversary. Being a mermaid has been so big, so crucial to my intellectual and creative life for these ten years. And I'm a mushy mess of love and admiration for Ken and Anne. It just can't be boiled down to a blog post

I've been saying that a lot lately. I said it when my friends and I published this paper over the summer and a few sites asked us to write blog posts about it. I encouraged those sites to write them. Me? I can't boil that down to a blog post. Some things need more space than that, things like refutations of culturally ingrained racist analogies need more space than that. And would anyone actually read it? Do people read blog posts anymore? I don't. 

For years we were posting every single Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, sometimes twofers. Now people are recording podcasts. People are writing twitter threads. Who knows what else they're doing but it's less blogging. Maybe they found paying gigs. Maybe all the lapsed bloggers had babies.  

Having my son in 2014 meant I couldn't fart around on my laptop at night or on weekends as much as I used to, and certainly not to produce anything coherent like out of the innerworkings of my own brain. Children teach you how to be efficient during normal work hours at your office desk, while you're paying wonderful people to keep your adorable bossbaby away from you, an addict

And then when the stars align and you do post, like this time last fall, and you get kindly reblogged on some high traffic sites, you spend days dealing with the reactions, mostly negative, to the point where Twitter chimes in to say they noticed how overwhelming everything got and here's how to change your notifications settings for the better so maybe you won't delete your account? 

And then, despite the public criticisms of my my cognitive capacity, my as-imagined genitalia, and my writing ability, there were my vivid book dreams. I saw a sabbatical coming, thought I could finally do this no-big-deal lifelong fantasy, and decided to channel my writing energy less into the blog and more into the book. I made some progress. 

But looking back at some of my posts since our heyday here, like the one where I used a hot glue gun (wtf), and like the one where I baited for clicks with the title, "My sexed up Jordan Peterson fantasy," you might guess it was the kind of progress on the kind of book that miiiiiiiiiight be a tough sell not just to a publisher (most of whom want normal with only a spark of creativity so that it can sit on the shelf next to proven successful normal-with-sparks)... but that it might be a tough sell to literally anyone not inhabiting the space between my ears. And you'd be right. 

I lost my agent over it. Scared her away. 

Putting my book project in my Twitter bio actually worked to attract publishers' attention. About a year ago an editor asked to chat with me. How cool! Though I told her I wasn't yet looking for a publisher (not until I'd written the whole thing) and that I seriously doubted a university press would be a good fit for my book, she said I might be surprised. Over the phone I read my book's manifesto, just a few hundred words that I pulled together to capture the spirit of the thing, you know, in case anyone called. 
Somewhere along the way I got fed up with evolution—the version that we’ve been telling for over 150 years now. Maybe it was when it declared my life’s purpose to be survival and reproduction. Maybe it was when it said my body is inferior to a man’s. It was definitely by the time some professor pals of mine were monkeying around and a colleague assumed they were mocking black students. We fucked up. Can we please stop fucking this up?
Evolution is so beautiful and weird and wonderful. Everyone, even if they don’t feel like I do, deserves the chance to. But for too long we’ve alienated people from their own natural history.  We’re long overdue for a human origins that’s fit for all humankind. So, I set out to write one.
At first I assumed I’d have to remove myself entirely from this book. For a most inclusive human evolution, I imagined my author photo as just a handprint. I even toyed with the eponym “Anonymous.” But that’s the dead wrong approach.
Not letting on about how our origins story is written by people, real people, with hearts and souls, sugar and spice, piss and vinegar, people who can’t possibly represent all people is why we still don’t have a story that all people can claim for themselves. The crux of a most inclusive tale is the revelation that diverse approaches to science spawn new stories. Humanity affects how the science is done and how it’s interpreted, how it’s made human. I’ve got to be me to demonstrate that. So, I dropped that arrogant, unrealistic, sciencey urge to be superpersonal and instead got super personal.
It’s time to tell it like it truly is. Human evolution is all about me. And you. We may be strangers but you and I have a story of us. And whether or not we agree on what to emphasize or how to integrate that story into our views of life, our views of love, it is still ours together. And just like you, I am the hero of this tale, one of the inimitable billions and trillions.
The editor's first words were, "You can't curse that early in the book." And then she reminded me that I hadn't actually told her what the book *was*  and could you do that please?

I get it. I'm a Ph.D., I'm an evolution person, and I'm a feminist. You see me and you want the same old human evolution book you've come to expect of Ph.D.s but with a feminist twist. My book is human evolution. My book is feminism. But that thing publishers are thinking is not my book. I had already decided to write the whole thing before actively seeking a publisher and so this painful conversation encouraged me keep doing that. 

I'm not writing a book to be sold. I'm writing a book to write a book that is a book I want to write

But when is there time? You stop blogging and there's suddenly zero additional free time for book writing. You wake up early to write when your brain is on fire and your kid hears you and follows you downstairs and wants to cuddle. You do not write. You cuddle.

The thing about the book dream is ... the writing is the part I relish. The writing itself is the dream. How can I explain. I bawled my eyes out, smiling, while writing my book this summer. This happens to me all the time:
Google: "Joan Wilder crying"
Secondary to that dream is the potential to connect with readers. So dear reader, a book is the most selfish dream in the world for a writer who just loves to write. It will happen, eventually. I'll find the time. I used to have it. I spent it practicing in this lab, right here! And in lots of unposted writing as well. And it will happen sooner rather than later if I can figure out how to stop putting everything I've ever wanted to do into this one book. 

Just because I'll finally have the space to get big, like I don't on this blog, doesn't mean it's big enough.  Like, maybe in this book I won't do that whole teleportation angle/thread/surreal flourish I thought I was kind of pioneering until I read more novels. Maybe I won't make the table of contents a mix tape of tracks that perfectly represent each chapter. Maybe I'll just write what I find myself mucking around in regularly with my students and see how that turns out. And then maybe I'll let that more normal, acceptable book open the publishing door to increasing weirdness, you know, after I've earned it by being less publicly weird first. I think that's how it's done. 

Maybe it surprises you (if you've read this far, which surprises me), that I've got such a writerly perspective on my blogoversary.  A big part of my presence here has been related to my research. But so much of my research is driven by my teaching and teaching is writing. Is that the case for others? It doesn't seem to be a common story. Maybe if you consider mentoring grad students to be "teaching" and the ideas you have create projects and directions together. But I mean teaching the fundamentals, teaching textbook stuff, and seeing how it's played out in the public (your students' minds, newspapers, commentaries, cultural movements, medical practices, social media, etc), these experiences have sparked curiosity, consternation, or both which manifest themselves in writing, research, and more writing. 

My research has been, and continues to be, driven by questions like, What the heck is a Homo and is it even a scientific question to ask which fossil is the earliest Homo? What the heck is an ape and what were the ape circumstances that preceded the evolution of hominins? Are human babies born early? Why are we born when we’re born? Why are babies helpless? Are women’s hips really “compromised”? What do sex differences in hips have to do with the evolution of bipedalism? Could anybody but a human know that sex makes babies or hold a concept of paternity? Did our ability to reason abstractly about reproduction contribute meaningfully to human evolution? Sex differences in stature and the pelvis occur because of developing reproductive organs, so why are the dominant explanations so narrowly focused on male competition and childbirth? Why is evolutionary thinking perceived to have negative societal implications even by those who accept evolution? What can we do to stop this negative association? How do we untangle racism and sexism from evolutionary thinking?  

Because I think best when writing and even better when I imagine Anne and Ken reading it, I've struggled with those questions here as I struggle with them in writing for "real" publications. So much of my science is scholarship. I have to learn about what's published already just to get some clarity on those questions above before I can even think about endeavoring to contribute my own more science-y, data collection and analysis-style research towards answering these questions. This is how my career evolved out of my Ph.D. and postdocs as I took a position in one (NEIU) and then another (URI) fully undergraduate, teaching focused program. This is how my career evolved as someone who loves to learn by reading and writing. And this is how my career evolved as someone who loves to ask questions (often inspired by students in her classes) that she can't easily answer by doing hands-on science herself.

I think a lot about the time I took a position as coach of the Penn State women's crew team during my first year of grad school. I still had a year of eligibility since rowing at UF, and a good friend and elite rower told me, "They're better off having you as a coach." He has no idea, but at the time this really stung! All I heard was that I wasn't a talented rower. But I was! What he meant was my coaching had the potential to do more for the team than my rowing ever could. He was right about me. Plus, one rower does not make a boat. A coach, of all people, should know that. 

This memory resurfaces now and again, not just because of how badly I mangled my friend's wise encouragement, but because it feels like a metaphor for my academic life. I love data collection and analysis. Have you seen me in the field? Have you seen me sprint up and down the department halls when I get a statistics thingie to run and to create an accompanying figure that looks half-decent *and* shows support or not for an hypothesis? 

But that's not been my career for a long time. I've been reading all your science and learning so much and it still makes me feel like running. And I run! But I can't help but feel like I'm not on the team anymore. And, worse, I can't help but feel like I'm a bit exasperating for, among other annoying habits, taking words that people publish literally, and also having irritating and seemingly ignorant conceptions of "evolution," for example. These feelings, like I'm not part of the science team anymore, are a bit like the feelings that spurred me to quit coaching after just one year; I wasn't mature enough to handle not being a rower. With research, though, I am mature enough to handle not doing the grant-fueled primary stuff. 

Maybe it's because I'm 42 and I have a small child and I have a 3-3 undergraduate teaching load (with at least four different preps per year) and am facing the same for the next 23 years, so I've not just settled into that reality but I have embraced it. Maybe it's because I realize that I have this not-sane jealousy of computers, that they're having all the fun while we just type on them, and that I not-sanely want little do to with that future which I will begrudgingly admit is now, no now, no now, now, now. Stop it. 

In that context, am I ever going to launch the more science-heavy follow-up to any of my scholarly deep-dives with any new-to-me science-y methods, many if not all requiring some form of futuristic computer whispering? No. I know this about myself. I appreciate the hell out of my collaborators and I can only ask of them so much. And I can't go back to grad school and learn, instead, primate physiology or developmental neuroscience or creative writing (the one that got away... for now). 

Right now I'm doing the things that I think, in my capacity and given my context, have the most potential to make the best contribution: Teaching and writing, and (for both) learning constantly and sharing that with others. If it weren't for the Mermaid's Tale Blog and the connections I've made because of it, I don't know if I could have evolved to be comfortable with this unplanned outcome of my Ph.D. in fossil ape feet, let alone to cherish it like I do. 

I have often wondered, am I a scientist or a biological anthropologist even though I don't do much of the primary data-driven original research anymore that I was trained to do? Am I either of those -ists if I prefer to ask questions that are best, at least for me and for now, answered by reading and writing? Will I morph even further away from those -ists if I ramp up my creative writing?

Like many questions, this is not one that science can answer. Literature, however, always has the answer to a question like that, if you're lucky enough to find it. 

In The Seas by Samantha Hunt, the protagonist, a fellow mermaid and fellow word lover, ponders the many dictionary definitions of "blue" and says,

"If one word can mean so many things at one time. I don't see why I can't."


Ken Weiss said...

There is a lot musing in this musing (and amusing) post. Thinking about how the world is, is science, even if part of our society professionalizes this as if it must take some particular form (such as experiments or statistical analysis, etc.). Stimulating others to think about how the world is, is another facet of science, too, in my opinion. We all have to live in the world, and only get to do it temporarily, so one can either do that oblivious to the nature of things, or can do it in wonder OF the nature of things. And why we can even conceive of 'the' nature of things.

College students pay tuition and many of them do it so they can get some sort of training. Some, even some seeking training, also want to wonder about how things are. Nothing could be more important.

You're very enthusiastic and interesting in your muses about how-things-are, and I bet your students easily sense that, and that it transfers to them, which I assume is what you want to happen

Anne Buchanan said...

We had a good run, Hols. And, for the record, I enjoyed reading every one of your posts! I know your next 23 years will be very interesting, in a uniquely Dunsworthian way, and I look forward to your output, wherever it may be! xoxo

Mi Gaceta Irregular said...

I became interested in your blog three years ago because someone said in a documentary that lions know their offspring because they have had sex with their mothers. The fact is that I found very unlikely that other species besides humans knew the relationship between sex and offspring. So I googled it, found your blog and since then is a source of information and inspiration for me.

I am not a biologist, but I am an economist aware that evolution is a necessary touchstone for all social sciences. While - at the same time - it is very problematic to draw conclusions for other social sciences from evolution theory that we know is true, but still has many unanswered questions like the ones you mention.

In that sense and throughout these years, you have refuted many beliefs supposedly based on facts that are not facts, but rather theories that need corroboration or that are clearly refutable.

I do not always agree with you, of course, but even if I do not agree, it is always instructive to read your posts and articles because you usually point out the weakness of the arguments or ask the really crucial questions.

Thank you very much.

PD. Sorry for my bad english.