Thursday, November 29, 2012

Latent, Stereotypical Thinking

I got an e-mail from a local high school teacher that I thought I would share with you. Have you gotten one of these recently? If so, what did you decide do?

Hello Mr. Schmelz,

I am a teacher of Honors English at ABC High School. I write you today to ask if you would be so kind as to allow one of my Honors students to contact you, via phone or via email, for a brief interview about Astronomy as a career choice. This young man, XYZ, is very bright and very congenial . . .

Honors English I Teacher
ABC High School

After much thought, here is how I replied:

Dear DEF,

I talk to students all the time about careers in astronomy and would be happy to be interviewed by XYZ. However, and this is a bit awkward, there is no _Mr._ Schmelz . . . I am not only a professional astrophysicist, a PhD, and a full professor at the University of Memphis, but I am also a woman! I am not sure if this will change your preconceptions about who can be a successful scientist, but I hope it will. If XYZ would still like to interview me, please have him contact me to set up a time.

Dr. Joan T. Schmelz
Physics Department
University of Memphis

The teacher replied almost immediately. Much to my relief, she fell on her sword: 

Oh MY!  Even a mature and ardent feminist like myself suffers from latent, stereotypical thinking.  My sincerest apologies to you, Dr. Schmelz! XYZ is most sincere in his interest in astronomy . . . Thank you kindly for your offer to give of your time and expertise for this young scholar.

I realize that this was indeed the outcome I was hoping for, but I still worried about the tone. Should I have just deleted the email and not worried about it? I was trying to be a model of tactful assertiveness. Had I succeeded? Way too much creative energy went into this exchange. Of course, I could (and should) have been doing other things, but I admit that prying open the eyes of one self-described “ardent feminist” makes me feel that it was worth the effort. Hopefully, she will never suffer from her “latent, stereotypical thinking” again!

--Joan Schmelz