BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Struggling with Science ...

This was another of those “Early Reviewer” program books that I put a request in for due to my being the doting father of a daughter who is studying to be an engineer. These days, almost anything that deals with females going into the STEM fields gets my attention, as I'm (obviously) rooting for my kid to be the most awesome engineer ever, and anything I can do to make that less painful for her, I'm up for. Evidently, the LTER “Almighty Algorithm” is in sync with this, as Eileen Pollack's The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys' Club is about the third or fourth book I've gotten from there that's more-or-less on the topic.

As those who have read many of my recent reviews, I seem to be in a zone of having issues with how the books I've been reading have presented themselves via their sub-titles. I am not the first person to note that “Why Science Is Still A Boy's Club” is not particularly representative of the actual thrust of this book. While being “thematically” accurate, this is largely an auto-biographical tale, focused on the author's experiences in attending Yale as a physics major, and not some in-depth look at the societal factors leading to the still-substantial difference in the gender mix in the sciences.

Not, mind you, that this material isn't in there, but … and this is just my “gut feeling” … it seems to have been added on in order to turn the author's personal story into something more “generally applicable”.

I hope I'm not indulging in “spoilers” here, but Ms. Pollack opts to not go forward with a career in physics, and instead becomes an author and writing professor. It is, perhaps, a testimony to her skills in composition that I went through most of this book not really “getting” how long ago most the narrative happens … as I ended up with a “huh?” moment when the dates finally sunk in – having felt that I was reading something far more recent in her life than the 30 years or so in the past this all occurred. Not that this is “ancient history” (she and I are only a year apart – so I probably have a visceral identification with her college experience, if in a very different context), but I was surprised about 2/3rds of the way through the book to find this was a middle-aged woman's recalling her grade school, high school, and college years.

Why surprised? Well, this is going to sound bad, but it's really hard to nail down with other words … a lot of this is awfully whiny, with stories about how she wasn't appreciated at various levels, or how she got stuff, or didn't get stuff, or acted differently, or whatever, which read as a lot more immediate that revisiting long-past slights.

Of course, I'm a guy, and so probably don't have the appropriate sensitivity to how those situations impacted little Eileen … but my ability to empathize with her (despite being a "right-end-of-the-bell-curve" kid myself) definitely has a point where it drops off into less-sympathetic impressions.

Since the first 2/3rds of the book (which is convenient divided up into sections of her early years, her Yale years, and her revisiting things three decades later) is pretty much just a bio … I guess it wouldn't hurt to do the broad strokes. The author was from a small town in the “borscht belt” of the Catskills in upstate New York, where her Jewish grandparents owned a small resort hotel, and her father was the town dentist. She starts the narrative very early on, when she is shocked that the stuff she's noticing (like thinking) at “age 3 or 4” isn't some major discovery on her part … setting up a pattern of thwarted expectations that tend to recur throughout the story. She's described by one teacher as “obnoxious”, and from her descriptions of her behavior at various points, that seems to fit. For much of the early part of the book, she's keen to point out how she was living in a wholly different reality than most of those around her … she tells of a time when she was being tested for possibly skipping a grade (3rd?), and was in the office of the teacher who was putting her through various assessments. A pigeon gets into the office, the teacher freaks out, gets up on the desk, and is later quizzical why she didn't get more upset … her response: “Why should I be upset? This isn't my office. I'm not the one who needs to clear up after it.” … which is obviously set up to show how “different” she was (even though she makes a point to say that she remembered what she said from 50 years ago ... how much dialog do you recall verbatim from when you were 8 or 9 years old?).

There's a lot of auto-biographical stuff here that, while adding “color” to the telling, probably doesn't do much to advance the supposed thesis of the book … do we need to know about her crushes … the nearly-inappropriate relationship she has with a high school teacher, which does have elements that impact the story, but it's just uncomfortable in the telling (she thought they'd get married, he turns out to be gay), etc.? And, do we really need to know about her hormonal imbalance (too much testosterone) that only got addressed (kickstarting her periods) with a visit to the doctor in college? These may make the bio more interesting, but don't do much for main point of the book.

So, the first third of the book sets her up as a brilliant, but unfocused kid. The second part of the book is her experiences at Yale … and how she had to struggle through a wide assortment of difficulties that she (no doubt rightly) perceived as being things that a male would not have had problems with (from not wanting to speak up in class to ruining a pair of hose she was wearing in a lab). Again, a lot of this comes across as “poor me” rather than “this was a universal experience of all women on the Yale campus”.

The last third of the book involves her going back to Yale (and her grade and high schools) to see how things had changed, or not. She was welcomed back by the various departments, etc., and set up with situations where she could interview students. This leads to the key informational part of the book … after having interviewed (briefly, because she went to the wrong office initially) a female department head, there was a reception for the author, which ended up being attended by a large number of female students (and the department head), with the students raising a number of issues that the department head didn't realize were problems, resulting in her clearing her schedule and giving nearly full attention for the next several days to Ms. Pollack … introducing her to a lot more contacts, etc. This provides the real “meat” of the book.

Anyway, The Only Woman in the Room is not coming out until this Fall (it has a September 15 release date), so you'll have a while to wait if you want to check it out … although you can pre-order it at the moment from the on-line big boys (at a 45% discount). While the book is well-written, and the story is engaging up to a point, it still feels like it's an auto-biography that ended up getting a sociological coda added onto it to make it appealing to a large enough market to get published. I had, when requesting this, hoped for something more integrated, and possibly more informative (not that there isn't a whole lot of data eventually presented here). I just didn't feel that the “Why Science Is Still A Boy's Club” theme was particularly advanced by the author's life story. Again, this may be my being a cynical "privileged" male brute, lacking the sensitivity to fully empathize with the tale … so you might connect better with it than I did.

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Tags: book review
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