On blogging under my Real Name

2013.12.09 - at the growth chamber Hi, yes, this is me. Photo by jby.

The following is my contribution to Hope Jahren’s roundup of commentaries from scientists who use their “real” names in online settings. I solemnly swear that we started working on this before it turned out to be so very, very timely. You should go read all the contributions!

I can’t recall exactly why, when I decided to start a blog over the holiday break in December 2006, I put my real name on it. I think I had some vague, naïve sense that attaching my own name to my online writing would hold me accountable to some degree of professionalism and quality. I do know that I was operating under the assumption that no one would ever read the damn thing, anyway. (Even though—let’s be honest—I was also hoping that someone, lots of someones, would!)

Eventually I started writing about evolutionary biology, which is what I actually do for a living. My dissertation advisor somehow found the blog, and decided that it meant I should take charge of building a website for my University’s hosting of the Evolution Meetings—and this is probably the point at which Shit Got Real.

I devoted a page on the site to aggregating blog posts about the conference, including several of my own. I set up a Twitter feed for the conference, and started a personal account for good measure. This was the equivalent, in HTML and RSS feeds, of jumping up and down in front of the entire international body of my colleagues and saying “hey, look! I have a blog!”

Hello My Name is Opportunity Photo by One Way Stock.

And this turned out better than I had any right to expect. The same year as the Evolution meetings, one of my posts won me a trip to ScienceOnline 2010, where I made some of my first contacts in the broader community of popular science writers. I’ve landed a couple guest posts at the Scientific American website, and gotten pieces included in print collections of online science writing. As I was wrapping up my Ph.D., I talked some grad school buddies into joining me at a new group blog, Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!, and on the strength of that site’s success, I was offered the job of managing The Molecular Ecologist, the blog for the journal Molecular Ecology. Just in this past year, my online contacts among gay, lesbian, trans* and queer scientists came together to help with a study of sexual identity in scientific careers—I’m currently writing up the first results for publication.

Writing, outreach, and interacting with my colleagues online have been major parts of my professional development as a scientist. Blogging is all over my CV, in a dedicated section of my teaching statement, and in every “broader impacts” section of every grant proposal I’ve written in the last three years. At this point, I genuinely cannot imagine how I would do some of the most basic functions of science—finding interesting new papers, reading what other people think of research results, learning new analyses and programming tricks, communicating my own thoughts and results—without online media.

When I was a graduate student, my blog was a way to try my hand at science outreach with a low bar to entry—did I have time to write a few paragraphs about an interesting new journal article this week? Now it’s a (still, I think) relatively novel, demonstrable strength I have to offer in my hunt for funding and faculty positions. But most of this would be inaccessible if I wrote under a pseudonym.

What’s more, even if I toyed with the idea of restarting under an assumed name, I can’t think of much that I’d do differently—more cussing, maybe? (I do about as much as I want to already.) More sniping at bad science? (Really, where would I find the time?) I suspect that my profile—youngish gay biologist with a thing for species interactions, a distaste for sloppy evolutionary storytelling, and a stylistic crush on David Foster Wallace—would, in a word, out me.

I’m keenly aware that there are risks in putting my real name and face all over the Web, attached to a years-long blog archive and thousands of offhand, 140-character remarks—including not infrequent mention of the fact that (surprise!) I’m gay. Some of the risks, I’m privileged to evade. As gender-conforming white dude, I generally don’t have to worry about attracting stalkers, or field the relentless harassment that women often deal with in online settings, and (I think) I’m allowed some social space to “raise hell.” Some of the risks I minimize to the degree that common sense and my own technical chops let me. I think I mostly keep things professional on Twitter—as professional as I keep things in the lab, anyway—and my Facebook profile is (I think) pretty well locked down.

And finally, I’ve decided that some of the risks aren’t really risks: If a faculty search committee looks at my online record and says, “there’s no way we can hire this guy,” then I think I probably don’t want that job anyway.◼

2013, by the numbers

2013.06.29 - Research team! The Queer in STEM team. Photo by jby.

2013, by the books

2013.06.29 - Book sale I A book-sale table at Twin Cities Pride 2013. I bought some books at the sale—but not any of these. Photo by jby.

I read 17 books in 2013. I actually have no idea how this stacks up to past years, though I did set myself the goal of 20, and that proved to be a bit ambitious. Here’s the list, more or less in chronological order, with notes about what I thought of each:

  • Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell — I read this after watching the film adaptation, and came away with a deeper appreciation for both versions of the layered, multi-generational story. As a book, it’s an endless pleasure of renewed recognition as themes and images repeat and evolve.
  • 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson — This is a really lovely, optimistic vision of humanity’s future. It has some great set-piece scenes, including one in which space-dwelling communities drop animals from orbit to repopulate the Earth’s biosphere. The actual plot—something about politics across the Solar System—is rather thin, and mostly happens in the background, but 2013 is grade-A hard science fiction with a humanist soul.
  • Children of the Sky, Vernor Vinge — A nice continuation of the series started with A Fire Upon the Deep, which explores a society reshaped by the arrival of aliens (humans!) bearing hyper-advanced technology. Unfortunately it’s a little less self-contained than the earlier books, leaving a number of plot threads loose in anticipation of a sequel.
  • Sticks and Stones, Emily Bazelon — I wrote a full-length review for this one—I think it’s a great and important collection of research.
  • On Being Different: What it Means to Be Homosexual, Merle Miller — This was a self-assigned reading in what I think of as my ongoing class in remedial Queer Studies, and it’s remarkable both for how much has changed since Miller first wrote the essay, just a couple years after Stonewall, and how much really hasn’t.
  • Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective Science Teaching, Gregory Light and Marina Micari — I reviewed this for ProfHacker. Coming from the perspective of someone who wants ideas about what to actually do in a classroom, rather than general statements of principle, I didn’t find it very helpful.
  • Matter, Iain M. Banks — Banks (who died this year, unfortunately) is my current go-to for solid, exciting space opera that doesn’t require me to stop thinking critically when I pick it up. Matter describes the interactions of a primitive culture with much more advanced ones—and the deadly outcomes of political maneuvering within each.
  • Zoe’s Tale, John Scalzi — More space opera, this time about human colonists on a new world and their efforts to avoid war with non-human intelligent natives, and hostile off-world aliens. Like Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead without any of the mystical fluff or weird sexual baggage.
  • Relentless Evolution, John N. Thompson — I reviewed this for The Molecular Ecologist, and I liked it quite a lot.
  • The Second American Revolution and Other Essays, 1976-1982, Gore Vidal — I’m ashamed to admit this was my first in-depth exposure to Vidal. He’s a bit classist for my taste, but at his catty best, he’s great. This got me wanting to write essays.
  • The Algebraist, Iain M. Banks — Another solid hit, this one a story of interstellar war in which ancient and apparently gormless, anarchic aliens turn out to be more than they seem.
  • Life at the Speed of Light, J. Craig Venter — I reviewed this for The Molecular Ecologist, and thought it was pretty good.
  • Paleofantasy, Marlene Zuk — This is a lively debunking of some recent pseudo-scientific fads, and a nice introduction to better-supported thinking about recent human evolution.
  • The Murder Room, P.D. James — The first old-school mystery novel I’ve picked up in ages. It’s a good, straightforward murder procedural.
  • Fun Home, Alison Bechtel — This graphic novel-format autobiography about Bechtel’s childhood with her closeted father may be the best thing I read all year. I blew through it in two evenings of sitting up late.
  • The Green Hills of Earth, Robert Heinlein — This was my first in-depth exposure to Heinlein (I never did make it through Starship Troopers), and I mostly liked it. Green Hills is really a collection of short stories, set over the course of humanity’s expansion across the Solar System. I like Heinlein’s focus on (mostly) men doing the grunt work of colonization, though his writing is workmanlike at best, and definitely a product of its time.
  • A Dance With Dragons, George R.R. Martin — I waited for this one until it came out in mass-market paperback, both because I’m a cheapskate and because I know I’ll have a long wait for the next book in the series. Like every entry in Martin’s “Song of Fire and Ice” since the first A Game of Thrones, this isn’t a particularly self-contained story, but it’s a good continuation, and it made for good holiday-break reading.

Progress, of a sort

“Christian University Rethinking Ban On Hiring Openly Gay Faculty” is ordinarily a headline I’d browse past without much thought (especially on Queerty, where the next thing in browsing order is probably a curated assortment of images of freshly-out Tom Daley) But when I saw it the week before last, the third paragraph caught my eye:

Eastern Mennonite University could be the first Mennonite institution to formally reverse its policy that prohibits tenure-track faculty from engaging in same-sex relationships. Currently, openly gay professors in same-sex relationships are not eligible for employment. If they want to work at the university, they must keep their relationship statuses a secret.

Yeah, so that would be the same Eastern Mennonite University that occupies an entry on my curriculum vitae.

As I found out from a press release at the university website, the EMU board of trustees has “authorized President Loren Swartzendruber, DMin, and his cabinet ‘to design and oversee a six-month listening process … to review current hiring policies and practices with respect to individuals in same-sex relationships.’”

What precisely are those “hiring policies and practices”? Well, EMU expects its faculty, staff, and students to adhere to a Community Lifestyle Commitment that includes a pledge to “refrain from sexual relationships outside of marriage.” Per the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (a doctrinal document of Mennonite Church USA, the national organizing body of the church), “marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.” So if you’re gay or lesbian and want to work for EMU, well, you can’t have a dating life—and certainly not a long-term, committed relationship—and also keep your Lifestyle Commitment.

That fact that this effective ban on the employment of LGBT people (and, indeed, education of LGBT students) only becomes apparent if you cross-reference two different policy statements tells you everything you need to know about how the Mennonite Church has historically operated w/r/t queer people: as indirectly as humanly possible. Back when I was on the EMU campus, lo these almost 10 years ago, that cross-referencing was a highly effective way to ensure that anyone on campus who even thought he might be gay (ahem) was alone and afraid for his academic standing.

Things may be better now. Indeed, with the university finally moving to discuss the possibility of maybe thinking about catching up to such radical social innovators as the U.S. military and the state of Iowa, things could be about to get a lot better. But I can’t say that I’m encouraged by the framing of this “listening process” so far.

Citing the thoughts of one board member, Swartzendruber said, “Unilateral decision-making leads to broken relationships and rogue actions. Collaborative decision-making means that a community is functioning well. This board’s decision and this process will, I think, show how well our community functions …

“Collaborative decision-making” is also an excellent way to privilege the majority perspective over whatever harm it does to a minority. It’s what gave the Mennonite Church its Confession of Faith, and EMU its Community Lifestyle Commitment. So, on behalf of the students who are where I was a decade ago, I dearly hope this results in better treatment—but I think they’d be better off getting well away from any community that wants to collaboratively decide who they can love.◼

Four years on Twitter

2013.02.23 - four years of tweets Image created by wordle.

So I saw Ed Yong do this, and it looked like a good idea: download the full text of everything I’ve tweeted since I started the @JBYoder feed—you can do this via an option under “settings,” now—and make it into a Wordle. As it happens, my very first tweet was back on the 9th of February, 2009, so this word cloud represents just a bit more than four years of my tweets.◼

State of the blog, 2012

Daily visits to www.denimandtweed.com, 2012 (blue) vs 2011 (orange). Image and data from Google Analytics.

In all of 2012:

  • 222 new posts
  • 45,636 visits, up 20% from 2011
  • 32,385 “unique” visitors, up 35%
  • 122,363 pageviews, up 66%

Top-viewed posts, in descending order:

Miscellaneous landmarks:

It’s been a busy year, but a great one! If you’re still reading at this point, you must be one of my tens of loyal readers—instead of filling out a formal survey this year, why not say hello in the comments, and tell me why on Earth you’re still hanging around this unfashionable end of the outer eastern spiral arm of the Internet.◼

Hello out there! The D&T 2011 reader survey

Hmm. Out there looks … familiar. Photo by tom jervis.

After crunching the traffic numbers yesterday, it’s time to look at the results of my reader survey. With caveats for sample size, it appears my audience looks a lot like me: male, queer, young-ish, North American, English-speaking, and white. Here’s the Google Documents graphical summary of the fifty-four responses. (Or you can inspect the spreadsheet with the raw responses here.) Let’s start with the demographic bullet points I just mentioned:

  • Male. Of the 54 respondents, 20% (11) are female and 80% (43) male; no-one identified as transgendered. My readership is less gender-diverse than the current U.S. Supreme Court!
  • Queer. Twenty-eight respondents (52%) said they are attracted to the opposite sex, which is a majority—but much less so than in the general population. Nineteen (35%) said they are gay or lesbian; seven (13%) said they are bi.
  • Young-ish. A strong majority of respondents said they were either single (23; 43%) or married without children (19; 35%). That squares with the age distribution of respondents, for which the largest group are between 26-30 (16; 30%), and 65% (35) are under age 40. (There’s an interesting bimodality to the age distribution though—there’s a second, smaller peak in the 55-60-year-old bin.)
  • North American. Sixty-one percent of respondents (33) are living in the U.S; another 9% (5) are in Canada or Mexico. I’m going to bet most of those are in Canada, based on the next point.
  • English-speaking. Eighty-nine percent (48) grew up speaking English. Which makes sense, since that’s the language I write in. This and the previous point also square with Google Analytics results, which find the overwhelming majority of site visitors are from the States, followed by England, Canada, and Australia.
  • White. Ninety percent of folks (47) identified as white/Caucasian. More people chose “other” (3) than any of the other racial/ethnic categories I provided.

The folks who answered the survey are also quite well educated—72% (39) are working on or have completed either a Master’s or a Ph.D. More than 74% (40) have some sort of “formal” involvement in science—that is, anything from an undergrad science major to a tenured professor to retired from a scientific job—and a strong plurality (37%; 20) are primarily interested in biology. Under occupations, the overwhelming majority are either currently students (35%; 19) or employed “in my field of interest” (41%; 22).

As I noted at the outset, that profile looks a lot like … me. To some extent, I guess that’s not super-surprising. This is a one-man blog, and it makes sense that it would attract an audience of people most likely to share my interests, who would be most likely to be similar to me in other ways. But, to the extent I’d like D&T to be a public education project, it’s not great that I’m mainly reaching other white, educated, young-ish folks. I shall have to give that some further thought.

The answers provided under “interactions with the site” were, to me, some of the most interesting. A plurality of respondents (35%; 19) said they’ve never shared a link to D&T, and almost two thirds (61%; 33) have never commented on the site. One one level, that looks like there’s a lot of “unengaged” readers out there, but I think it’s an encouraging result. It suggests that the folks who answered the survey are a different group than the readers I know from Facebook, Twitter, or the comments section, and that was a major goal of setting up the survey in the first place.

Although the largest single response to the sharing question was “No, I’ve never shared a link,” the others indicated a lot of link-sharing: on Twitter (30%; 16), Facebook (28%; 15), Google Plus (13%; 7), by e-mail (24%; 13), or in an in-person recommendation (17%; 9). Thanks to all of you! Folks who had commented on posts mainly said they did so to add something (90%, or 10 of those who responded to this question) or to agree with the main point of the post (55%, or 6); folks who had never commented mainly said it was because “I don’t feel I have anything to add” (46%; or 16 of those who responded to that question). That actually tracks pretty well with my own commenting philosophy—I tend to chime in when I have something additional to say or an objection to lodge, but I’m more likely to express agreement or interest in a post by sharing the link, or writing about it in a post of my own, than by commenting.

In terms of topics, an overwhelming majority (85%; 46) read D&T “primarily” for the science. Asked which topics they’d like to see more about, most (46%; 25) also chose science; a number wrote in answers under “other,” but mainly to affirm the current topic mix, which is gratifying. Similarly, there was no single strong response to the question of which topic I should cover less, unless we count “other” with no specific response. (On that one, someone wrote in “DON’T MAKE ME CHOOSE,” which made me chuckle.)

Finally, those folks who wrote in the final “any other thoughts?” box said, basically, a lot of very kind things. I thought about reproducing those comments here, then considered it’d be tooting my own horn a bit much even in the context of this post. So I’ll just wrap up by saying, thanks for reading Denim and Tweed, and thanks for taking the time to tell me what you think of it. Here’s hoping the new year brings more interesting, exciting, and maddening things to write about.

(Also, I’ve taken the suggestion to do something about the way photos display in the RSS feed. It’s been driving me nuts for ages.) ◼

State of the blog, 2011

The quantified blog. Photo by hyperboreal.

Happy New Year! Time for some quantitative navel-gazing, which now counts as a Denim and Tweed New Year’s tradition, since I’ve done it twice before. Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at the responses to my first-ever reader survey, but right now, I’m just going to go through the metrics I’ve used before.

In 2011, I wrote 198 posts for this site. According to Google Analytics, these attracted 73,899 page-views by 24,025 unique visitors. That’s an average of 373 page-views per post, and an increase in traffic of 161% over 2010, when I had 28,308 page-views. For some perspective, it’s about two orders of magnitude less than John Scalzi’s visitation rate. But not too bad, if I do say so myself.

More detail after the jump.

Weekly visitors to Denim and Tweed, for 2011 (blue line) and 2010 (green). Image by Google Analytics.

Most of that increase in traffic is attributable to a link from PZ Myers to my post taking down Jesse Bering’s ridiculous declaration that gay-bashing is adaptive. That’s the spike in the graph above. “An adaptive fairytale with no happy ending” was, accordingly, the most-visited post of the year, clocking in 4,222 page-views since publication. The next-most popular post of 2011 was a follow-up in the ensuing back-and-forth over certain evolutionary psychologists’ failure to understand basic evolutionary biology, with 3,441 page-views.

The other top posts of 2011 are less controversy-driven: my review and discussion of Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow (1,188 page-views); a post on partially carnivorous plants (966 page-views, in part thanks to a nice nod from Ed Yong); and then last year’s post about whether or not female orgasm is an adaptation (836 page-views).

In fact, once you get below the top 5 posts, pieces from previous years show up pretty frequently. I guess this means D&T is increasing its visibility in Google searches? The top search phrases leading folks to the site (apart from some form of my name or the site’s name) were “herbivore,” “ant dispersal,” “mutualism,” “female orgasm,” and “what makes a species.” I’m kinda proud of that last one.

Post topics are a bit more difficult to total up. However, by my count in the Blogger post management dashboard, I published 150 posts tagged “science” in 2011. That’s compared to 21 posts tagged “politics” and 24 tagged “queer.” (Note these are not mutually exclusive categories!) Of the science posts, 47 are tagged “evolution,” 5 are tagged “ecology,” and 37 were submitted to Research Blogging, meaning they were “formal” discussions of peer-reviewed papers. An even 50 of the science posts are the weekly linkfests.

I made some pretty major career transitions this year, too: I finished my Ph.D. and started a postdoc. I’m enjoying life as a “professional” biologist, but it’s decidedly less compatible with regular blogging than grad school was. Nevertheless, I expect to keep posting at Denim and Tweed, and hopefully to continue development of the new collaborative site Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!—writing and discussion in both venues continue to be useful to my thinking about my scientific work, and (hopefully) valuable as public education, too. ◼

Twelve months of Denim and Tweed, 2011

Following DrugMonkey’s lead, here’s the first sentence posted to this site every month in 2011. (I’ve cheated a bit by skipping over boring introductory material in one or two cases.)

  • January: Happy New Year, everyone!
  • February: My dear Hooker, I was grateful for your very kind wishes; and for the book about the Anoles of the West Indes, which I expect I shall read with much enjoyment.
  • March: Plants’ ancient relationship with animal pollinators is pretty crazy, when you think about it.
  • April: In which a new technology loses its shine.
  • May: What has two thumbs and forgot to submit to the Carnival of Evolution this month? This guy.
  • June: Greg Laden hosts this month’s Carnival of Evolution, the monthly compendium of online writing about descent with modification and all its consequences, complications, and controversies.
  • July: So counterintuitive, it’s counterfactual.
  • August: The latest edition of the Carnival of Evolution, a monthly collection of online writing about evolution and all its ramifications, is online at Sandwalk.
  • September: The September issue of the Carnival of Evolution is online now at The End of the Pier Show.
  • October: It’s been ages since I posted a recipe, but I’m still doing lots of cooking.
  • November: This week at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, the big science post comes from … me.
  • December: Via Scott Chamberlain: A species of ants that lives in and around carnivorous pitcher plants isn’t entirely freeloading.

Hey, I really kept on top of the Carnival of Evolution, eh? I did this last year, too. More quantitative navel-gazing coming in the new year. ◼