August 16th, 2008

rock shadow

SAT scores and constraint vs. risk-taking

ADDENDUM to the previous post on alleged gender differences (that I meant to post yesterday but didn't have time):

At bab5 eight days ago we also talked about a recent study finding that the gender difference in math SAT scores has all but disappeared, at least for the average, which I take as further evidence that the difference could well be due to social factors. Text of the article below for those who don't have BugMeNot.

Interestingly, the variance in scores is higher for boys, which reminded me of research done on how parents, teachers, and others tend to constrain and control girls' actions more than others, for a variety of reasons. For instance, boys are on average allowed to roam much farther from their parents at parks and playgrounds; are allowed out on their own at an earlier age and with fewer restrictions; and are generally allowed to be more boisterous and "take up more space" in the classroom and at home. This translates into a culture condoning more risk-taking for boys generally, in all areas of their lives, from academics to sports to "acting out" (I certainly knew many more boys who were class clowns or delinquents than girls). I'm only somewhat familiar with the literature on this but I really should be more familiar, and likely will be in the next couple of years.

I have a hunch that some of these constraints on girls relate to societal fears that are largely focused on girls. These fears follow the "security theater" model of overreacting to a highly publicized event involving an action (such as stranger abduction or sexual assault) that is actually exceedingly rare (most abductions and assaults are by family or acquaintances). Certainly the law is strongly geared toward these rare, but highly publicized, cases: child sexual assault parolees in California must wear a GPS tracker and must stay more than 2000 feet from schools, parks, and other places with children, even though most of those cases involved a known child and the tracking system does nothing to keep them away from the children of family members or friends (though, of course, the stigma of having a GPS tracker may well give the signal by itself). Paul Dourish and some of his students are doing research on the social and privacy implications of this GPS tracking of parolees, since it's one of the few places where surveillance has reached such invasive levels.

Also, as an aside, I know I tend to focus on "boys and girls" and don't include other sex options very well (though I try to be better about gender orientations). I've heard about the pitfalls of this, but at the same time, so much of my research and social commentary focuses around people's beliefs about the world, and the gender binary is certainly a strong societal norm (and one with actual basis in genetics, at least for mammals). I know I'm reinforcing these things by taking them for granted, but really, if I tried to write in a completely socially-aware way, I'd just never get around to writing because being thorough in that way is damn hard and very daunting. So sorry, but I'm afraid you'll just have to deal.

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rock shadow

Values in Design

I've spent the last week at a small workshop/institute on values in design at Santa Clara University, which has been a wonderful experience of collaboration, discussion, and fun with a whole room of people doing research like mine. When I'm so used to having to always promote and defend myself academically (especially true for academics at the intersections of fields, and also especially true for women), it's a luxury and an inspiration to be able to spend a whole week with like-minded folks who have been both intelligent and supportive. We started the week with a whole day of socializing -- a hike and then a barbecue dinner at the faculty hosts' house -- which was perfect for breaking the ice and getting us beyond the conference self-promotion practices. During the week we had guest lecturers discuss the value dimension in their work -- Paul Dourish on Monday, game researchers Mary Flanagan and Tracy Fullerton on Tuesday, Suzi Iacono (from NSF, who sponsored the workshop) on Wednesday, and my previous advisor Nancy Van House on Thursday. On Friday we took a field trip to data storage and retrieval company Zantaz, which let us discuss the value implications of an increasingly quantified, surveilled, searchable society. Today we had a day-long mini-conference where we presented projects that we had developed in groups throughout the week (I'll post on those later). At first I wished I could tie the workshop topics to my own research rather than developing a whole new project, but the exercise was actually a perfect way of thinking through the implications of values in design in a very practical, hands-on way, and also a great way of getting to know several of the workshop attendees very well (though I had discussions with almost everyone in the workshop throughout the week).

The discussions we've had have spurred me to reflect on what values drive my own research and shape my outlook on the world. I was surprised at how easily I was able to articulate my own values, and even more surprised at their implications. Even in my high-school activism days, I was committed to exploring, exposing, and publicizing alternatives to fallacious dominant paradigms, particularly ones that involve gender/ethnic inequity, in a way that makes us recognize the fallacies. This thread has been present, to varying degrees, through all of my research, and the more strongly it is there, the more passionate I feel about the issue. It's also surprisingly Marxist (where I mean that in the academic sense of focusing on interactions between the material/economic/political world, or the "base," and the social/ideological world, or the "superstructure") and not so surprisingly feminist (in both the academic sense of attending to power dynamics and silencing, and the popular sense of attending to gender inequalities). In blog posts, you have probably noticed that this often comes out in nature vs. nurture debates, discussions of the societal influence of behaviors we often take for granted, and attempts to summarize social science results that may be well-known in the academic world but haven't spread to the general public. Anyway, all of us come to our research with various agendas, and I think it's vitally important to recognize these agendas in order to understand their implications for our research.

On an unrelated note, my paper on hacker culture, Constructionism, and the One Laptop Per Child project has been accepted for my Major Project requirement! It'll need some revision before submitting it for publication, but I'm so happy about how far it has come, and so grateful to Fred for his help.