Although we read other (excellent) materials on "gender in engineering education" last week, I want to unpack one of them because of the reaction to it I had... over 6 years ago now. I got this book as a 21st birthday present for myself, a few days before college graduation. (That blog post, by the way, exemplifies my highly global engineering learning style.) It's a plain-looking tome; a faded green iceberg on the cover, plain white print that shows the title.

Seymour, E., & Hewitt, N. M. (1997). Talking about leaving: why undergraduates leave the sciences. Boulder (Colo.): Westview Press.

The short version is this: "Why do undergraduates switch out of STEM fields? The ones who switch are disproportionately female and/or nonwhite. It's not because they're less smart or talented. Hey, look... the world we've made sucks for them, such that dropping out of STEM is a rational, smart choice." 

I remember the details of the arguments foggily; I remember they were solid, based on hundreds of hours of interviews, ridiculous amounts of quantitative data. And my subsequent recent re-reading of portions of this book are heavily, heavily colored by the overwhelming memory of the emotions this book stirred up in my younger self -- this being back in a time when I did not have, or allow myself to feel, much in the way of emotions at all.

It was a bombshell of depression linked to (and fueled by) righteous indignation. Some combination of that's totally unfair! the world is broken! I want... I want to, to fix it -- if I tried really hard, then maybe -- but... it's so big, even if I try, it won't get fixed...

There was an edge of of course the world is broken all around me but I've done it anyway haven't I so it's possible and these people need to try harder... countered by an immediate no, that's the story that you and the rest of the world want to tell, and the point of the book is the un-telling of that story, and the world is broken.

Mostly it was that the world was broken, which I knew but never wanted to admit. I've heard this from a lot of smart kids who've grown up outside some fairly major privilege category (race, gender, sexuality, disability, class, whatever). You think that if you really are smart and hard-working, you should eventually be able to mostly "get past" "all this." (Note the vagueness of both the "all this" that we're navigating and the verb-phrase indicating how we're going to deal with it.)

I remember analyzing the arguments and appreciating their solidity, admiring the research: the evidence was solid, the mixed-methods approach a good one to play to an engineering audience who would be used to numbers, the analysis was too damn good (it looked fantastic to an undergrad who was just starting to read engineering education research, and it still looks fantastic to a grad student who's done it close to full-time for a few years now). I remember going to Gill's office (he was my undergrad advisor) in wide-eyed sputtering "but Gill, this can't be true, because it isn't fair." And when he, with great compassion, listened and nodded sadly, I went off on a rage run. That's what I used to do on Olin's campus when I had a lot of steam to let off. It's just going off as fast and as far as you can until you collapse and not really caring what happens to your body in the meantime. This time I did it on a bike and came back covered in mud and scrapes and bruises and the bike in need of a hosedown and mild repair. (Thanks, Greening Olin bike club.)

So that's how I remember this book. The research, yes. The data and analysis, yes. Absolutely yes. But also, every time: the mud, the burning in my lungs when oxygen gave out before my rage did, limping back to the dorms wanting to go back out and explode again, and a body that was too tired to let me.

I think this means I ought to read the book again. I've been avoiding anything but the most functional and feelings-numbed skims because I associate it so strongly with something that triggered me in a huge way before. Alice asked me last week how it feels, reading the book now -- and it was funny, really. I realized that lots of the research I read this days are just as rage-worthy, just as "HEY MEL LOOK THE WORLD IS BROKEN"; if I were reading Talking About Leaving for the first time now, it would be... unremarkable, in terms of the visceral response provoked. It's just that -- it was my first one, because there had to be a first one at some point. And I don't think I've numbed myself, although that would be easier in some ways. If I stop and pay attention, then I find that I do feel every paper just as deeply, maybe even more (now that I've gotten better at this "having emotions" thing) than when I was an undergrad.

Maybe it's that my interior space has gotten bigger, more able to hold and acknowledge the magnitude of all these... burning fires that... make you want to... change things. (I am speaking slowly and hesitantly, unsure how these words form into thoughts. I am testing out this thinking; I do not know what I'm saying.) I wonder if this is one of those things that doesn't get easier, but that you get better at dealing with -- if that's the way I want to look at it for now, if that's a useful model.

Good enough, I decide as I type this. Good enough to put down for a little while; I can come back and try again later, but I don't have to. It'll come up if it needs to, and this blog post will be out there. It's enough.