Of nodes, nubs, and shared projects. And cyborgs. And why being alone in your dept is hard, but being alone in a discipline is really hard.

Though it’s decreasingly common, many women in science have had the experience of being the only woman in their department. Social networks have been and continue to be important ways of connecting those who are the only or amongst these few. These networks might take place at conferences, via societies, or through the internet. A colleague of mine, Allison Steiner, leads one of these: the Earth Science Women’s Network. Their mission is (I added the bold) “…to promote career development, build community, provide opportunities for informal mentoring and support, and facilitate professional collaborations.” Community seems crucial for people to feel more like nodes in a connected system rather than, well, nubs.

This is the logo for ESWN; I’m using it here to have a picture on this post so that I don’t get kicked off the internets for having a (gasp) blog post without an image. But the image is also useful to the post itself.

But what about those folks who are nubs? The ESWN logo has a nice earth image, which is obviously related to the Earth Science aspect of the network (this astoundingly sophisticated analysis is only one demonstration of proof that I have a Ph.D.). But it’s also a useful image for discussing the community aspect of these networks. I like to think that the ESWN image also represents the connecting of people from all over. As in the Earth. Like people from all over the Earth. But see those stars in the top? Maybe that’s for the sky part of Earth Sciences (I am entirely making that up), but I like the metaphor it also could represent: solitary stars spread throughout the sky, maybe a bit lonely, like the nub-stars they are (I thought I’d downgrade the poetic rhythm by sliding in the ever-elegant term ‘nub’). In the interests of full disclosure, in case you’re wondering, I’d like to admit that I’m a frustrated art critic. But also: stay with me because there is an actual point I am actually making. Like, what if there’s no pre-established [Insert-your-discipline-here]-Women’s-Network for you? Moreover, what if you’re isolated and different because of group membership along lines other than your gender (or gender-as-woman)? What if you’re the only African American? What if you’re the only immigrant? The only queer-identified person? The only person with poor parents? So, really, the question should likely be: what if there’s no pre-established [Insert-your-discipline-here]-[Insert-your-social-group-here]-Network? Well, I guess you could just establish it. Case closed!

Ok, not actually. Establishing an online network could be a lot of work. And thinking that doing so is a possibility presupposes that there are group members who exist in your discipline, just outside the solar system of your department. You can probably guess what I’m asking now: Where is my chocolate croissant? Just kidding (not really). What I’m really asking is: What if you’re not just alone in your department, but you’re the sole group member in your discipline? Are you a destined to be a nub-not-node forever?

Someone who asks ‘when does that ever happen?’ probably isn’t a multiple minority or a minority in a very homogenous discipline. It might seem inconceivable to some (majority) folks, but there are lots of ways to be the only ‘representative’ of one’s group in a specialty discipline. Did you see how I put representative in scare quotes? That’s because rarely is the ‘representation’ of the chosen kind, and more frequently is of the enforced-not-a-choice kind. For example, you could be the nub in the “crux” or “heart” of an issue sort of way, you could be the “small protuberance”; you could be both. In other words, your presence could bring needed attention to the problem of disciplinary homogeneity or you could be seen as the problem, the thing that sticks out and rubs people the wrong way. As Sarah Ahmed puts it in her book “On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life” (and I paraphrase in the way that suits my point best): by reminding people of the problematic lack of diversity, you kind of become the problem itself. But, that’s so unfair! I totally agree! Still, it’s pretty common for people in power to blame marginalized groups for their own marginalization and their all-around ruining of the power-taking party. Like: What, the ways I’m in power marginalize you, and you don’t like it? YOU’RE RUINING MY GOOD TIMES HERE. Or, one of my personal favorites: Don’t you care about your marginalizing of my efforts to marginalize you?

(If you’re wondering whether you should keep reading, I just want you to know that both Inspector Gadget and Voltron make an appearance soon.) So, being the only group member in a department can feel more like a nub than a node, and being the only group member in a discipline might be replete with nub-ness. But nub can mean ‘heart’ and ‘crux’, which can be positions of strength. I mean, there’s gotta be some sunny side – right? – since no one is handing out ‘hey-sole-group-member’ medals these days. (Granted: any days). Sometimes, the feeling of isolated nub-iness can be so strong that the possibility of node-ness seems remote (yes I, too, am finding ‘nub’ and ‘node’ a little less than poetic, but I’m not rewriting this whole thingie). Societies and networks around minority identities are one important solution. Another is acting on the many ways to build alliances. Group membership – i.e., social identity – is one great way to coalesce and it benefits those of us who are minorities. Unfortunately, it doesn’t benefit those of us who are sole representatives. So then what? Feminist science studies offers another way to think about building alliances: via affinity. With affinity-based alliances, you find people with similar progressive values, and build community there. To be clear, I see the utility of identity-based alliances too, and it’s not up to me, anyway, to see the utility of others’ identity-based alliances. But to sum up: affinity-based alliances are built on shared goals, overlapping experiences of marginalization, a sense of shared project. Maybe even a joint love of chocolate croissants (never almond, though) (let’s be honest).

Donna Haraway is a well-known feminist science studies scholar who discusses affinity-based alliances in her piece “The Cyborg Manifesto”(click here: Haraway-CyborgManifesto). It’s a really exciting piece, though it’s not the easiest read ever in the universe. First off, I hope it’s apparent how allying based on affinity can be really useful for building community among those of us who are sole representatives in our departments and (especially) disciplines. That means it’s useful for all of us, even those of us with developed networks, because we help be community for others and also grow our own. I don’t know about you, but I remember the isolation (just felt it yesterday, in fact!) and my empathy substrates explode at the thought of ‘letting’ someone else go through the same preventable experience. Second off, I should be clear that Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto has literally been the hardest thing for me to read and understand in my whole life. Now that I get it (I think, anyway, or at least I’ve tried and FEMINIST PHILOSOPHERS OF SCIENCE STOP JUDGING ME IN MY IMAGINATION!), it has been life-changing for me. Obviously, you will fare better than I did, but I just wanted to warn you that this article might not be the best entree into feminist science studies. Sort of like: you wouldn’t read a paper from “Acta Metallurgica” (that’s a real journal!) as a starter into, um, metals? Metallurgy? Right? Right.


Who knew that Inspector Gadget was (could be) (isn’t really but should be) a feminist icon?

Third off (it was time for a new paragraph; even I recognized that): Haraway argues that progressive social change requires ever-changing alliances between groups because groups are not homogenous. For example, you may have heard the rumor that not all women want to have children. Some women who don’t want to have children want to work on issues of parenting in work/life balance; some don’t. Some women want to ally with other women; some don’t. Sometimes it makes sense to ally with women. Sometimes it makes sense to ally with people who want to end discrimination in your discipline (and that usually includes some men). Haraway uses the metaphor of a cyborg because you can change the parts of a cyborg. The parts aren’t necessarily interchangeable; they’re useful in specific contexts. They don’t need to all be involved, all the time, in all situations. Like, say, on a cyborg it might be handy to have a hook hand for doing hook-needing things (crochet?) (and pirate-ing?) (and did you see my pun about ‘handy?’ I’M ON FIRE). And then a five-finger hand for, um, typing blog posts with five fingers. And, doing spirit fingers. So, Haraway’s image of a cyborg is like a highly sophisticated, feminist Inspector Gadget (you knew this was coming, right?). Except the Inspector isn’t a person; it’s a community built with ever-changing individuals allying together depending on the goal at hand. And one other difference is that Inspector Gadget is a cartoon from my childhood.

So, sometimes it might be useful for group members to ally across disciplines (e.g., women in science and philosophy, as I put forth in a past post) but sometimes it won’t (when counting, say, science foundation grant rates to women vs. men in a discipline). Sometimes it might make sense to ally across feminists, regardless of gender, to promote progressive practices around diversity in science that benefit everyone, and especially women. Sometimes, it might make sense for a racial/ethnic minority group member scientist-who-is-a-man to ally with the minority group member scientists-who-are-women. Or, maybe, a First Nations/Indian/Native American woman with the Latina women in the discipline, because of shared experiences of marginalization.

I guess I’m saying: how can we find strength in our STEM nub-ness, and ways to build spaces for more nodes, in nontraditional ways that might be especially useful to the most minoritized and marginalized among us? Like, how can we come together based on affinities to promote alliances and progressive action? So, really, what I’m saying is, in all sincerity: I wish we all were the feminist Voltrons of science. Obviously.


Voltron is also from my childhood. Maybe yours! It’s made of different cars or lions (I can’t remember which, and the picture is no help) that come together to make a mega-character (i.e., Voltron). Voltron is super powerful, but so are the car-lions on their own.


You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *