Monday, April 28, 2008

Why so personal?

I had a conversation today with David Brown, who's writing an article about geoblogging for the AAPG Explorer. He asked one question that I really didn't know how to answer: why is my blogging so personal?

I've been thinking about it for the rest of the day, and I think there are a couple answers. The first goes back to the reasons why I blog. Geologists, like other scientists, do their professional communicating using strict (but often unwritten) rules. Scientific writing is impersonal, for good reason: the point is to talk about the observations, the models, the reasons why one explanation is better than the other. The ideas should hold up under examination by many other people. And a scientist should be able to step back from her own pet hypothesis and conclude that she was wrong, if that's what the evidence says. Good science should be free of ego and bias.

But that's an almost inhuman ideal. And, well, it may be a useful process, but it's not what makes me keep working in this field. I do geology because it's beautiful. I love being outside, scrambling through brush, and then looking up and seeing the mountain across the valley, or the potholes in a streambed, and feeling as though the breath has just been knocked out of me. I'm fascinated by the stories hidden in the textures of metamorphic rocks. I like to spin the stage on a petrographic microscope and watch the pretty colors. (Come on. I can't be the only person who does this.) I like the twisted shapes of multiple crenulations seen in thin section, and the smoothness of slickenlines on a fault plane. And I like being confused: walking up to an outcrop and wondering what on earth could have made it like that, and does it really make sense given what everyone else has said about it.

Those aren't the kinds of things that go into a scientific paper. They keep me going through the research, but when the time comes to write a grant proposal or a journal article, I have to put them aside.

Five years ago, I had just been admitted to the hospital to have my son. I was luckier than most women in science: I had accumulated a great deal of experience before my mid-30's, enough so that I got tenure while on maternity leave. If I hadn't, having a baby would have knocked me out of science.* I'm not as strong and determined and efficient as most of the women-in-science bloggers. I slacked off, let the fieldwork slide, didn't publish. Now, I'm working my way back. But I can't do it by simply sitting down and writing an impersonal article. I need to be driven by the sense of wonder, as well.

I started blogging as an outlet for that part of me: the part that finds geology beautiful.

And there's another thing. Being a geologist means that I have an intense sense of place. I'm not from around here, but I live here, and do research here. So I blog about plants, rivers, ice crystals, and whatever else I see, because blogging helps me pay attention to where I am.

(Of course, I may write very personal-sounding posts simply because I'm not a good journalist, and I can't think up universal hooks. So I'm left telling personal stories. Perhaps.)

* You know, it struck me that this could be used as fodder for all those people who think that women shouldn't be hired as doctors or scientists or whatever, because they'll just go and have babies and stop being productive. So, a little more detail about my situation five years ago: I was denied tenure at my first job, in December of 1999. It was like getting dumped, after trying for seven years to become the person that my old school expected me to be. So I was a bit commitment-shy in the first years of my new job: I didn't want to become too attached to the place before I knew that it wouldn't dump me, as well. That meant that I decided I wouldn't start a new research project in a new field area until after I had tenure. And by that time, I had a baby. So, here I am.


Kareina said...

You are not the only person who likes to spin the stage on a petrographic microscope to watch the pretty colours!

ReBecca said...

Me too! I love to look at the pretty colors. I think it is an untapped art market!

It is also nice to see someone else blogs for the same (or similar) reasons as I do.

MJC Rocks said...

I very much appreciate your post about why you blog. I started for much the same reason: to describe the beauty and the majesty of the planet. I was trying to explain the geoblogosphere the other day (actually while I was on your campus watching my soon-to-be daughter-in-law graduate) and I described how some bloggers describe and respond to peer-reviewed articles, while others (like myself) talk about the things that might be of interest to laypeople, and that some bloggers, you especially, who straddle the divide and talk about both realms. And you do it well. Thanks for the insight.

The college and the Rockies were beautiful. I wish I could have stayed longer, but I only had four days to get to Colorado and back to California.

Oh, and I like to spin the petrographic stage, too!

Ron Schott said...

Yup, I use my petrographic microscope as an expensive Kaleidoscope, too.

Silver Fox said...

Personally, I think your style of writing and what you write about is beyond interesting and should appeal to geologists and non-geologists alike - for example, here you've written something that well describes the beauty and fascinatin of geology - and place. For me, I think that aspect is important - it is the aspect that shows geologists and scientists as real human beings, it brings in the "art" side of geology as art and science, it shows other people why we are here. McPhee, I think, has done a similar thing, and has appealed to a wide range of people, maybe even bringing some people into the field - as maybe you will. Science journals are science journals, and blogs are blogs.

Keep up the great writing! And remember that it's hard to compare oneself accurately to other people. In my mind, you've done an amazing thing. I considered having a child while in my 30's, and decided (to some regret later) that I wasn't cut out for that - there were no role models to follow then. Now, you are one.

Julia said...

I used to spin the stage too. It was very pretty, and an excellent way of getting back at hungover, belligerent TAs...

And to follow on from Silver Fox's comments, I saw a great quote this morning:

The person who carves him/herself to please others soon whittles him/herself away.

Tuff Cookie said...

Stage-spinning is even more fun if you put the gypsum plate in first!

coconino said...

I appreciate your comments and discussion about having a child mid-career. I'm in a similar position, but more so as a single mom. My ability to work lots of hours and spend lots of time in the field/traveling for work is much more limited than it was pre-child, which may hamper my abilities to move up the food chain in my particular work organization. That may not be a bad thing (we don't all need to be senior managers), but it is limiting in a certain sense. The other issue I come across is that it is difficult to find communities that are single working mom-friendly, with pre-school aged evening or weekend activities that I can actually take my child to, as opposed to 10 am Tuesday morning.

I do really appreciate the personality that comes through your (and others') blog(s). I think that is part of what makes blogs so attractive, that you can let your personality and passion for the subject shine through. I certainly feel that way about my blog (though I haven't been able to post for some time). It allows me to be very personal about a my work where I can discuss function and loss of habitat in an abstract fashion, but never about my deep attachment to certain landscapes and my sorrow at seeing their demise.

I also really miss doing microscope work on thin sections. I think it was one of my all-time favorite lab activities. You can really get lost in point counts. ;-)

Kim said...

Coconino - Argh, yes, about all those activities at 10 am on Tuesday morning. And evening activities are rough with a kid who doesn't nap, too - I finally took my kid to swim lessons this year.

I love the support for microscope stage-spinning. Unfortunately, our microscope just takes static pictures. Someone should make a Youtube video of a spinning microscope stage (with the gypsum plate if there aren't enough micas to make things pretty), with a soundtrack from Phish or the Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd or something...