19 January 2017

How a catchy title bit me in the butt

At SICB, the committee I chair, the Student and Post Doc Affairs committee, SPDAC, has a noon event every year. It’s usually some sort of workshop. This year, I wanted something that would complement the society’s incoming Code of Conduct for the meeting ,and wanted more of a roundtable than a presentation.

The title I came up for the roundtable was: “Low on the totem pole: power structures and power struggles in academia.”

I was pleased that I had not used the phrase, “Low man on the totem pole.” It’s an often used phrase (as the picture at right demonstrates), but does exclude half the population.

But the title was called out on Twitter as “cultural appropriation.”

It isn’t great considering that the Society is pushing for more inclusivity, and even has a Broadening Participation Committee (which I was encouraged to attend). And inclusivity is something I try my best to support.

The gist of the argument, as I understood it, was that the use of the phrase was inaccurate: the position on a totem pole in First Nations cultures didn’t indicate anything about power or status.
 My first reaction was to clench up and want to say, “I didn’t do anything wrong!” But after a few seconds thought, that didn’t seem to be a particularly helpful reaction.

The first thing I did was to make clear that the title was entirely my choice, and therefore my fault. That way, if anyone was going to be mad about it, they knew to be mad at me, and not the Society in general or the Executive Committee or anyone else. It was my decision, and I had to live with it.

I also said that I was happy to talk about it. The SPDAC had a booth in the conference vendor room, so I did have a place anyone could come and find me. There was a little more discussion on Twitter, but no face to face conversation.

I had some conversations with some people I trust about this to try to judge just how badly I misstepped.
Having thought about it, I realized that I could have used several other turns of phrase to get the same point across (like, “Bottom of the heap,” say). And when someone makes a polite request that you not use a phrase, and you can think of another one that makes the exactly point with only a few seconds thought, there’s no point in trying to argue that you were justified in using the phrase.

Constant improvement is the samurai way.

1 comment:

Marklar said...

How about nucleotide at the bottom of the telomere?