Since I’m made of particles, I’m a particle physics expert!

There are many things I’m an expert on.  Here is a list:

  1. Weather. Why? Because I have experienced weather for all the years of my life.
  2. Existence. Why? Because not only have I experienced weather for all the years of my life, I have also existed for all those years too.
  3. Gravity. Why? Because do you see me flying off the earth? No.
  4. Milkshakes. Why? Because obviously.
  5. Lists. Why? Because I’m making one right now. And, I’ll add, I’ve made them before. A lot.
  6. House construction. Why? Because, apart from the years I lived in university residences or apartments, I’ve lived in houses. In fact, I’ve lived in a lot of houses. Have any of them fallen down on my head? No. Why? Because I’m an expert in house construction.
  7. Astronomy. Why? Because I have seen the stars and once I learned how to pick out Orion’s Belt. I even once wrote a poem that mentioned Orion’s Belt.
  8. Particle physics. Why? Because I am made of particles.
  9. This list could go on, ad infinitum (I am also an expert on Latin because I used that phrase without even looking it up).
Northern Lights

Weather, which is something I’m an expert on.

 

Let’s be honest, it’s pretty easy to be an expert, right? OR IS IT?! (cue dramatic music!) It is remotely possible that I am being sarcastic or facetious (as if I know the difference) with my list above. Also, I’d like to make clear that as a child I thought there were two words: 1) facetious and 2) facetitious, the more detail-oriented version of the first (hence attention to all the facets). Now that we’ve cleared that up (phew!), let’s talk more about experts and expertise.

Here’s a funny fact: I actually am an expert and so are many of my friends. It’s kind of no big whoop to be an expert around these here parts, to be honest. Can you believe we’re such a bunch of bitches to actually call ourselves experts?! It doesn’t matter; we are. We all have PhDs, do research, and are internationally known (to rock the microphone) (just kidding, Rob Base & D.J. EZ Rock!). We’re not experts in everything. We have specific areas of expertise, even beyond being a bunch of bitches. For example, my areas of expertise include hormones, sexuality, feminist science, intimacy, gender/sex, sexual diversity, and other things. Who do I think I am? Mr. Big Stuff? Can you believe I have the nerve to call myself an expert?! It doesn’t actually take nerve. For me, it takes a Ph.D., an ongoing research and publishing program, and the respect of other experts. But, really, aren’t we all experts?

No.

We’re not all experts. Why not? Because experience doesn’t equal expertise (see my list above). It takes learning, critical thinking about your experience, weighing evidence and ideas, and exchange of ideas, among other things. Why am I talking about any of this anyway? Because, feminists and scientists (and, wow, definitely feminist scientists) often hear people question their expertise. Like, someone might say: I have gender, so basically I know as much about gender as a gender scholar. Someone else might say, I’ve had peeny-bageeny sex (that’s actually the Latin term; I know, because I’m an expert), so I’m pretty much a sexpert. Someone else might say, I’ve seen Black people, so I’m an expert on race. Or, I have a race, so I’m an expert on race! But even though the two words start similarly with ‘ex’, expertise and experience (no matter how broad or deep) are not the same things.

Do you need a PhD to be an expert? Nope. Why? Because I like to ask questions that have ‘no’ in their answers ever since someone told me to mix up my writing with longer and shorter sentences and ‘no’ is about as short a sentence can get. Also because you can have a lived experience that you do critically engage with. Like, having a gender does not make you an expert on gender or feminism. But you don’t need a PhD in those topics to be an expert on them. Maybe you’ve spent a very significant portion of your life thinking about gender, talking about it, reading and learning about it, and developing your own insights on it that add value to the way people understand gender. You’re able to communicate things about gender that make it make sense to others. You’ve figured out a lot about it and have a good grasp on what other thinking people think about it. You could be an expert on it then. I give you permission. This might be more likely if your experiences don’t fall along the majority of other people. Why? Because. (Another short sentence! I win!) If you’re too busy living the status quo, you might not even realize it in the way that fish don’t know they’re swimming in water (I know, because the fish told me). If you’re being excluded because of your gender, you might just stop to think ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ Otherwise, you might have little reason to think closely about gender. This is something called ‘feminist standpoint theory,’ which makes the point that critical reflection on your position, especially a marginalized or ‘non-center’ position, provides for invaluable and unique insights.

The funny thing is that people tend to get what I’m saying about expertise when it comes to, say, physics. They know that, unlike item # 8 above, being made of particles doesn’t make you an expert on particle physics. But when it comes to other things – things like gender, race/ethnicity, sexuality – somehow this logic dissipates. How do I know? My partner is a theoretical physicist! Surprise! And when people meet my partner, they’re like ‘wow, you must be very smart.’ They see my partner as an expert. This never gets said to me and, so, yes, this whole post is really just for me to complain and blow off steam and be like I AM SMRT TOO! Thanks! Bye! Just kidding! But, let me tell you something: in my presence, no one, and I mean NO ONE WHO IS NOT A PHYSICIST (except for my dad – who, like all dads – is a special case) has ever tried to convince my partner that they know more about physics than my partner does or that their take on a particular aspect of physics is more right than my partner’s is. No one ever says to my partner: but why call it physics? Guess how many people who have given feminism about one second of thought have tried to convince me, with total and complete sincerity, that we should change the name of feminism? I want to be like: HOW ABOUT WE CALL IT PHYSICS?!?! There are people who have literally never taken a course on feminism or gender, read a book on either, or even sat down and given the topics some thoughts who will, nevertheless, tell me – and, I would roughly guesstimate, ALL OTHER FEMINIST SCHOLARS AND EXPERTS IN THE ENTIRE WORLD (I’m an expert on guesstimating too) – that their views on gender and feminism, rooted in their deep thought of about one millisecond, are as expert as my own. Ironically, I’m a big fan of questioning experts, but I’m not a big fan of doing so out of a place of ignorance. I suppose I’m not a big fan of ignorance, now that I think about it. I am a big fan of ignoring, less so of igniting, and even less of ignominy. Just so we’re all clear.

Obviously, the point I’m trying to make here is that (a) I’m always right, (b) bow down, bitches (to quote Beyoncé), and also (c) I am an expert on lists (see item #5 above). But, really, it’s more that expertise isn’t something you get by dint of existing. Expertise is something you earn. Whether you’re a physicist (like me), a gender expert (like me), or an expert in house construction (like me).

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2 Responses

  1. Stacey Ritz says:

    S-M-R-T as always Sari! A couple of years ago I got a grant to run a small conference on sex/gender and lab science; after the conference, a frolleague (friend-colleague) asked me how it went in front of some other colleagues, and one of them asked me what it was about. His first reaction was “I don’t get it, how does being gay affect lab science”, so he clearly had never given this a moment’s thought before, and when I clarified how sex/gender were different from sexual orientation, he said, INSTANTLY, “Oh, you don’t need to worry about that, that will all get worked out in the clinical trials.” To which I replied “WHY THANK YOU, IF ONLY I HAD COME TO YOU SO I COULD BENEFIT FROM YOUR INCREDIBLY DEEP INSIGHT DERIVED FROM EXACTLY 2 NANOSECONDS OF CONTEMPLATION INSTEAD OF SPENDING THE LAST 10 YEARS THINKING ABOUT THIS STUFF AND READING ABOUT IT AND TALKING TO EXPERTS.” Except that I didn’t say that because the lunchtime speaker took the podium and started their presentation, so instead my brain just melted from the steaming angry fury.

  2. Sari van Anders says:

    Such a great story, Stacey! In that so-bad-it’s-great way, of course. It reminds me of something else I wanted to say in the post but didn’t get around to, which is that experts aren’t experts in everything. Say someone is an expert in their own field – that’s not a license to be an expert in all of science, or in aspects of science they haven’t thought about… but somehow people tend to think it is! I sometimes wonder if this is more common among faculty from disciplines that are held up as social examples of brilliance. Like, if science is the dominant paradigm of our time, then our culture could be very well telling scientists: “hey, you are so smrt at science, which means U R smrt at anything worth knowing! Which means U know all there is to know!” (That is how culture talks.) But, anyway, I wonder if this assumption of self-expertise also dovetails oh-so nicely with mansplaining. They seem like kissing cousins! Worth thinking about…

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