When you start to look at things differently, you start to ask different questions

May 2 Symposium to honor Brown’s Anne Fausto-Sterling, biologist and scholar of gender and science

Courtesy of Brown University

Anne Fausto-Sterling, the Nancy Duke Lewis Professor at Brown University, is retiring after 42 years of pioneering research in gender studies and biology.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/28/14
Learning how to think differently about science and gender – to color outside of the lines and to encourage her students to do the same – has been the focus of Anne Fausto-Sterling at Brown. Now, about to retire, she has embraced the digital world of communication, learning to teach and to share 140 characters at a time.
As Brown’s new strategic direction moves toward becoming a major research university, is there a component that is tracking and examining the role of gender in interdisciplinary scientific research? What can the business community learn from the Fausto-Sterling’s investigations in gender roles in better understanding the dynamics of economic development? Why has Brown been so resistant to creating a childcare center for its faculty and staff? What kinds of collaborations could take place with the Brown School of Public Health and the graduate program in Healthcare looking at the gender equation in the delivery of health care in Rhode Island, particularly with patient-centered care?
In its upcoming celebration of women in Rhode Island, Providence Business News used the terminology, “wicked smart,” to describe its honorees, causing some women in the community to wonder whether men would be described in the same way. The issues of race and gender continue to bubble up in our world – from the owner of the NBA Los Angeles Clippers, who objected to his Latina girlfriend being seen with Magic Johnson in photographs, to questions about Hillary Clinton’s becoming a grandmother and how that would impact her presidential ambitions. Here in Rhode Island, where minority children will soon become the majority children, promoting a sexually and culturally diverse community should be seen as an economic strength. It requires starting how to learn to ask different questions.

PROVIDENCE – Anne Fausto-Sterling will retire on June 30, after 42 years of teaching thousands of students at Brown University about biology, feminist theory, science studies and the application of science on a world stage, moving into her new role as the Nancy Duke Lewis Professor Emerita.

In making that life-changing transition, Fausto-Sterling has embraced the digital world with open arms – something that Rhode Island’s academic, community and business leaders could learn from and be inspired.

As she noted in a recent blog post, her teaching philosophy has been to lead people to resources, give them a little background, and then push them to figure it out for themselves.

“That’s how I use Twitter and my professional Facebook pages,” she wrote. “Almost every day I pass on an interesting article, a new resource, make a comment about how to frame gender, race, science and medicine as it is happening in real time.”

From now on, she continued, “my teaching will be 140 characters at a time and class attendance is totally voluntary.”

Fausto-Sterling will be honored at a May 2 symposium and exhibit at Brown, featuring a number of talks, including: “Gender and the Human Genome,” by Sarah S. Richardson of Harvard University; “Social Norms in a Science of the Mind,” by Anne J. Jacobson of the University of Houston; “Sex as Chimera: Tools for Unthinking Difference,” by Rebecca Jordan-Young of Barnard College, and “De-sexing the Mind,” by Ginger A. Hoffman, St. Joseph’s University.

ConvergenceRI interviewed Fausto-Sterling recently by telephone from Chicago, where she was the keynote speaker at a conference. Her groundbreaking research on gender studies has changed the scientific landscape. As she said: “When you start to look at things differently, you start to ask different questions,” an important reminder for those looking to live, work and thrive in Rhode Island’s innovation ecosystem.

ConvergenceRI: How does your embrace of the digital world – you say that your teaching will be 140 characters and class attendance is voluntary – change and improve the conversation?
It broadens the conversation. It reaches out to people who are interested in my conversation, whether they pay for tuition or not. I think that it’s become more fun for me. I get better feedback.

It’s less of a one-way conversation; it’s more interactive. It’s a very different dynamic than in the classroom, where you’re the authority.

I found the last few years of teaching in the classroom hard, because of the age difference [between myself and the students], to develop a mutually respectful working relationship. I’m the age of many of these kids’ grandmothers.

I like this much better. People who want to listen to me can.

ConvergenceRI: You say the challenge in the future for women scholars will not so much be the old boys network that you faced, but the ability to operate in the technocratic university in a structurally more conservative world? Can you explain?
In my day, I was breaking new ground in science and in gender studies. There will be future new grounds. My department [at Brown], to some extent, was able to support my amoeba-like behaviors over the years, working on gender studies and biology.

Most departments now are counting beans, and counting beans in the same pot. I see this in the sciences, in the tremendous emphasis in publishing in a high-impact journal, [a measurement] the journals set up for themselves.

The focus is not about the quality of work you are doing; it’s having measures for quality that are somewhat arbitrary and numerical.

What I mean by “technocratic” is there is a much narrower focus, making it much more difficult to color outside of the lines and still be successful.

The younger generation who can still think outside the lines will have a harder time than I did figuring out how to do that and still have jobs.

ConvergenceRI: In the growth of the knowledge economy and innovative ecosystems, how can a better understanding of gender studies come into play with redefining and shaping those ecosystems?
Gender studies, broadly speaking, questions what happens if you add analysis of gender to the situation, and how does that change the structure of what you’re looking at, reaching across disciplines.

If you try and link certain disciplines – [such as] with health care delivery – if you try to do that without thinking about gender and race, you’re not going to do that very well: health care delivery to children, how they get to child care, who brings the child to the clinic, or not.

You have to think more broadly than single categories.

ConvergenceRI: In your work, you reject the idea of a seesaw as a metaphor for human development and behavior, swinging back and forth between nature and nurture, but rather, prefer to look at a continuum of processes shaped by experience. How can this change the dynamic of science and research?
Because when you start to look at things differently, you start to ask different questions. The work on infant development analyzes sex differences at birth in head size, body weight, the Apgar Score. There are slight differences between boys and girls at birth, very tiny, but they’re there.

[Before, such data] was always analyzed one at a time, analyzed as a way of getting a technical handle on predicting health outcomes. So, a lower Apgar Score gets analyzed over a period of years [to determine] what does that tell us about this child when he or she is five and 10 years old.

Instead, if you start asking questions, such as: how do you have parents and infants interacting, how do parents handle their children in the first few weeks, you have a whole different set of questions.

If you look at these things as aspects [occurring] simultaneously, the explanation is 100 percent nature and 100 percent nurture at the same time.

[As a result,] if you phrase the theory differently, you have different empirical studies. Theory always conditions our experiments.

ConvergenceRI: How do you think Title IX helped to change the equation of gender?
Title IX was incredibly important in opening up physical competition that had only been accessible to boys and young men. I can’t say enough about it.

It was a very important legal challenge, one that has profoundly influenced the way we think about gender in the world and how we think about differences.

ConvergenceRI: Why do you think that providing childcare for faculty at Brown is still a problem for the school?
It’s a huge problem at Brown. The university keeps nibbling around the edges, but won’t make a commitment to really do it, to set up a real childcare center that graduate students and staff and faculty can access.

It is what is needed; they say it is a matter of cost. Cost is a matter of priorities, a priority equation.

ConvergenceRI: How do you view the increasing reactionary polarization in electoral politics around issues of gender and race? Is there a way to change the dynamic of that conversation?
Great question. Obviously, I think it’s alarming. The question is how you intervene with it.

The way I’ve intervened is to stay rational – and not scream.

I think students often have a hard time with it. They just get upset. I try to help them figure out how to do politics and not get into shouting matches.

It’s very alarming, and at the same time, very contradictory. Who would have thought that gay marriage would be so very close to becoming the rule of the nation, and, at the same time [politicians] are revisiting the right to practice birth control? It kind of blows my mind.

ConvergenceRI: As you retire, do you think the value of the aging demographic in American society is undervalued and disenfranchised as an economic force?
It will be a gender issue, because women live longer than men. They’re going to be more and more women.

I was the caretaker for both of my parents, who are now passed away, [a responsibility that often falls] to women. That care-taking responsibility – even when there is a male sibling is gender related. For the sandwich generation, for women who take care of kids and an aging parent, [it creates] extraordinary stress and their own health issues.

ConvergenceRI: What are you going to do for fun now?
More of what I already do – garden, spend time in the wilderness, bird watching, go for walks on the beach, all that stuff. We have a house on Cape Cod, and many of my favorite beaches are on the Cape.


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