Why I Teach

Hello. I am here to drop the babyscience.

A few years ago, at a big anthropology conference, I was a very nervous undergrad. I loved my science, and I couldn’t wait to get to every talk. But I also didn’t feel like I really belonged there. I was a “non-traditional” student, and I didn’t know where I fit in. Self-doubt followed me into every room, and every conversation I had.

It was in this context that I approached a couple of anthropologists whose blogs I admired, and told them I was thinking about starting a blog of my own.

Now, the individuals I consulted hailed from the “R-1” institutions of Fancypants University and the University of Geniuses respectively, and anyone in the right mind would have been intimidated to approach them no matter how nice they seemed. But I am a special brand of crazy. I freaking love my science and, as my friends will tell you, I can’t shut up about love to share it with others. But also, both of these people had blogs themselves, and I knew that, like me, they understood the importance of communicating this area of science to a public whose understanding of it is…lacking. (No, we don’t dig up dinosaurs.)

Well, they were not on board. “Maybe wait until you’re a couple of years into grad school,” I was told. “You don’t want to ruin your reputation before you even have one.”

Thus began my long, shameful walk back to the hidey-hole from whence I came.

Now, this person didn’t know me very well, and still doesn’t. And although it’s been a few years since this brief exchange, life being what it is, I’m still not “a few years,” or even one day, into a graduate program. And although I have kept reading journal articles, I continued to keep mostly to myself, heeding the wise advice I’d been given. Someday, I told myself, I’d get to do and share what I loved. Someday.

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Credentials fling you through the portal of intellectual freedom

Science, for very good reasons, is a merit-based (mostly) world, where you must spend a lot of time earning the “right” to talk about your science, and even longer for the right to have opinions. (That right is bestowed upon you with a thing called “tenure,” which is basically like the Holy Grail of academic level-ups, and in my observations most people seem to achieve it when they are about 50 years old and about 30lbs overweight.) The goal with a merit-based system is that science education and public science communication be high quality, achieved through quality control measures employed by academia, namely peer review and rigorous scrutiny of ideas. Therefore, anyone with academic ambitions would be well-advised to think carefully about anything they put out into the world. These people were only looking out for my professional well-being.

In the intervening years, however, some stuff happened.

  1. I spent a lot of time listening to parents. I kept reading journal articles, but I also kept reading the media that the general public consumes. Through reading clickbait articles, the twitter hot takes that precipitate from university press releases, posts on mom blogs, and through talking with parents, I started to get a sense of how this area of science was understood by parents themselves, and how it affected them. Waiting until some magical unknown day in the future when it was “safe” for me to engage the public started to feel more and more…well, expensive. While I was protecting myself, I was cheating parents out of knowledge that could make their lives easier at worst, and save them unnecessary suffering at best.
  2. I also saw a new anti-science movement develop in parenting. Not the anti-vaccinationist, essential-oil peddling one you normally associate with anti-science in parenting. This one is more insidious, posing as people “on the side of science” and infiltrating the skeptic community, of which I have been a part since well before my formal education in science began. Their tactics mostly involve in casting doubt in the public mind on the reliability of the science done on breastfeeding. They have made many good points, but they have also caused a lot of harm.
  3. Finally, I started to notice that many institutions in my own field, anthropology, were becoming more supportive of the efforts of scientists–even undergraduates–who enjoy public science communication. One of the largest university-run science news groups on Facebook that I am aware of, Bioanthropology News, hails from both my scientific field and my hometown. It has been 20+ years since Sagan was denied entry into the National Academy because of the professional jealousy and lack of vision on the part of his fellow scientists, but now, finally, science is starting to realize that it won’t survive in this world without ambassadors and advocates with big megaphones.

So here I am. Standing on the shore of my little sciencey ocean, taking my first steps into the water.

The ocean breeze will never look this good on me. Or anyone.

This blog was anonymously soft-launched with a silly idea I had this past winter. But actually I’ve been stockpiling post ideas for years, now. I’m going to start rolling them out.

I’m also going to be working in my new community, Chicago, which has a thriving science communication community. I’m working with local organizations who teach parenting classes, as well as a few non-profits who teach science to adults in bars. Yesterday, I played an improv game called “Zip, Zap, Zop” at a standup comedy workshop for scientists. I played it very badly, and looked very stupid, but I did it for science.

And yet.

Some part of me still thinks (and those of you who know me might be thinking this yourselves) that maybe it is arrogant of me, to teach a parenting class without being a parent myself, and to give public talks on biocultural pediatric anthropology without a graduate degree in it. It took me a long time to get to a point where I am comfortable in feeling that I not only have the “right” to do this, but should do it. But we should be clear on why.

  • I’m sick of watching parents suffer due to lack of information, or bad information. I’m sick of watching “real” experts with more degrees than me and more supposed authoritative knowledge than me telling women to breastfeed their babies in order to be “good” parents, and then turning around and actively sabotaging their efforts by telling them not to cosleep, brushing off their complaints, giving them bad advice, and pushing formula. I’m sick of a society where women can never win. Where a mom who is ambitious in her career is cold and selfish, and a mom who chooses to stay home is anti-feminist, and no one talks to them about how they can make the best of their individual situation.
  • There is an organized, growing anti-science movement affecting my subfield and no one in science is fighting back. This movement has already been given a platform by big names like Adam Ruins Everything and The New York Times. I do not see enough people who work in this area of science speaking out about it. In talking with some of them, I know that this is attributable in part to not having time, and also to not really knowing how. We need to start working on this. And parents need to be prepared for their inevitable encounter with this anti-science messaging.
  • As Uncle Carl used to say, “When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.” In other words, I desperately need (some) intellectual freedom. I’m not happy keeping this stuff to myself. I am genuinely, endlessly fascinated by the confluence of evolution and culture that is manifested in the behavioral and physiology of the human infant. I just feel like, people need to know what I know! People need to see their babies as I see them: as beautifully evolved, as the ultimate survival pros, as expert communicators, as insatiable information sponges, as old souls in a foreign world, as complex beings, as people. So much more than noisy blobs.
  • People need to see how important, and how heroic their job as parents are. I want them to imbibe information as the empowering force that it is, not a source of guilt for not achieving the ideal that they think the experts are telling them to achieve.
  • People need to know how capable they are of meeting their child’s needs, and how, in many ways, it is so much simpler than they realize. They don’t need expensive toys and products designed to make babies sleep longer. They just need time, tenacity, and their bodies.
  • They need to know that their “failures” are not their fault. I’m sick of the guilt and the shame in parenting. I’m sick of a culture that tells mothers what to do to raise perfect children and then throws up its hands and says “but it’s up to you to do it all and it’s your fault if it all falls apart.” If you have a friend whose pediatrician told them to switch to formula for a scientifically baseless reason, or you see a family in a restaurant struggling to calm their baby with culturally-learned ineffectual techniques, don’t you dare judge. That is on you. It’s on all of us.
  • They need to know that everything–Breastfeeding, sleep, crying politics, cultural values, and human history–are all connected, and how. Even if they do nothing different at all, this deeper understanding will be therapeutic in and of itself.
  • I will be wrong, and I think I can live with that. I am prepared for the inevitability that I will, at some point, give an inaccurate figure or citation, omit an important detail, gloss over a complex issue, opine too much, be too tired to contextualize a fact or be thorough with a topic, or perhaps even be flat-out wrong about something. And you know what? I can deal with that. I can adapt. I am here to learn every bit as much as you are.

And now, let me tell you a story about a baby ape growing up in a very WEIRD world…





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