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Professional Self-Image and Astronomy November 12, 2010

Posted by ASTRO Section Chair in : Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO), Cosmology, Gravitation, and Relativity (CGR), History, Policy and Education (HPE) , trackback Bookmark and Share

by Dr. Jarita C. Holbrook

My cultural astronomy project on navigation focused on why people today continue to navigate on the ocean using celestial bodies. A glaring question was why are people not adopting the Global Positioning System (GPS). There are many factors, many that are obvious such as batteries, as to why the GPS is not used in all navigating communities. However, after doing various calculations and listening to what the navigators said, I identified a new factor which is professional self-image. The question became: How do the navigators in this community image themselves to be in terms of their skills, the way they act, their values, etc.? I was most interested in the skills aspect of this question.

For my navigation study, I focused on three communities; and their professional self-image was different in each of these. Each community had a set of navigation skills and abilities that they considered to be essential to being a navigator. For example, on the Kerkennah Islands in Tunisia, the fishermen need to have a mental map of the seafloor features around the Islands to be able to pinpoint their location. Translating the relative depth of water to a specific location was a skill that the fishermen were proud of being able to do.

After my five years of studying navigators, I proposed a new hypothesis:

There are skills and abilities that are an essential part of the professional self-image of navigators, when a new technology is positioned to replace that essential part there will be rejection and/or resistance before adoption if adoption occurs.

My study of the United States Naval Academy (USNA) revealed a case of resistance and struggle between celestial navigation and the GPS. It is even more interesting because the GPS was developed by the Navy! Among Navy Officers, all are required to take celestial navigation classes and get certified (get a badge/pin) in celestial navigation, marking it as an essential skill. When it was proposed to remove celestial navigation from the USNA curriculum, there was struggle and resistance. At the end of my study, it was still being taught at the Naval Academy but in a stripped down form. The GPS is used by the Navy but so is celestial navigation, one is used to test the accuracy of the other. However, it is the old fashioned celestial navigation that is used to check the GPS!

There are many efforts underway to diversity Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Many efforts have had little or limited success. I have been on the Gender Equity Conversation Task Force run by the American Physical Society (APS) this past year doing site visits to physics departments in the United States. In conjunction with my film “Hubble’s Diverse Universe” I have visited several astronomy departments as well, where the bulk of our post film discussion focused on diversifying astronomy. I am currently studying the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme in South Africa, which is also meant to diversify astronomy. Not to forget that I too am a PhD astrophysicists and have done time in some of the best astronomy and physics departments in the USA. I had struggled with and continue to struggle with the professional self-image of astronomers. I have to mention that the French sociologist Pierre Bourdeau studied academic culture (Homo Academicus) and I could couch much of my thinking about the professional self-image of astronomers around his term “doxa”.

Focusing on diversity, I have been busily identifying those factors that are part of astronomers’ professional self-image that impede if not halt progress towards diversifying astronomy. As an aside, consider that women and minority scholars in the USA tend to create their own success at the margins of disciplines. One reason may be that the professional self-image within disciplines is inflexible (concrete, frozen, rigid) leading to no possibility of diversity and no chance of success for diverse members.

As an example of this within astronomy, in the discussions that followed viewing my film, in some cases the audience spent a great deal of time ‘othering’ minority students: they are only interested in money (read they come from poor backgrounds), they are more interested in less intellectual fields such as engineering (no offense, these were not my words!), and they would not want to make the time-investment necessary to become an astronomer. These comments were instructive to me on another level: I’ll not be sending my children nor my students to them, even my non-minority ones!

I have developed a series of activities to be done by students and astronomy professors around professional self-image to bring some of the factors hindering diversity to the forefront in an effort to identify and nullify unconscious biases. Thus far, I have done the student exercise twice in South Africa. It was fun and the students (who were black and colored South African) could see why they felt uncomfortable, unsupported, and abandoned by their professors. It gave them a morale boost building their resilience to survive in the astronomy environment. However, the students cannot change astronomy culture – the professors can. I hope to test out my professional self-image exercises sometime soon among astronomy professors.

This is my last week in South Africa. I traveled to Pretoria to see NSBP’s Charles McGruder, the International Astronomical Union President Robert Williams, and Astronaut and MIT Professor Jeff Hoffman give a joint public lecture to promote astronomy. Astronaut Hoffman helped fix the Hubble Space Telescope way back when the images were still out of focus. His presentation was moving, especially since I had done the “Hubble’s Diverse Universe” film which is a minority tribute to the Hubble Space Telescope. Afterward, I gave him a copy of my film – bold of me? Robert Williams I knew from my visits to the Space Telescope Institute; he was surprised to find me in South Africa. I was surprised that Charles had not told him that I would be there. Dr. Williams talked about some of the major findings of the Hubble Space Telescope advancing astronomy and astrophysics. Dr. Charles McGruder and I have a long history. He and I are both Caltech grads, except he graduated the year that I was born! I did not meet him until I was working on my master’s in astronomy. At the time it was wonderful to connect with an African American astronomer who also had survived undergraduate life at Caltech (in 2006 I met a third Dr. Alphose Sterling). Dr. McGruder spoke about the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) and what it would mean if it were placed in Africa. South Africa has put in a bid to host the SKA, and dishes would have to be placed in other African nations as well, which would bring astronomy to new places in Africa. Australia is competing with South Africa for the SKA.

Back in Mafikeng, Dr. Thebe Medupe and I are putting together a proposal to host the 2014 Oxford Conference on Archaeoastronomy in South Africa in Mafikeng. We got letters from each of the major hotels with quotes of their estimated room rates – two days of work! Our last task is to get a letter of support from North West University then I think we are ready to go. The proposal will be presented at the Peru conference in January. I am nervous about it because I will not be traveling to Peru, I will be in Seattle at the American Astronomical Society meeting (AAS). We have tossed around ideas for the theme of the conference. Our favorite thus far is: “Astronomy, Indigenous Knowledge, and Interpretation.”

Dr. Medupe and I have been planning the future of the Timbuktu science project and the Astronomy document collaborative project. Both focus on documents written in Arabic found in Africa that contain astronomy content. The Timbuktu project has been running for several years, I started building a larger collaboration last year starting with Egypt. Many African nations have archives of Arabic documents; these have not been analyzed for their astronomy content. The larger collaboration would identify those archives that have astronomy documents and then set up teams to analyze the documents. I am building the collaboration as a collaboration, not as me and a bunch of Americans going and doing everything. I want local partners who are willing to work as co-Investigators. It has been slow going because with each new partner we have to write joint grant proposals to get funding. It would certainly be a lot faster to simply send in a team, but I feel strongly that true partnerships will make the project sustainable and benefit more people including leading to training more local (African) students.

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