Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Unremarkable

When I became a publications knurd at the Rensselear Engineer, there was a traditional path of succession, Technical Editor to Managing Editor, to Senior Editor. Each term was Spring/Fall, so there was a semester's overlap with the incoming and outgoing Senior Editor, and at the other end, the selection of a Technical Editor in the spring of their freshman year put them on track to becoming the Senior Editor two years later.

I stayed at RPI for two years of graduate school, but I kept my distance from The Engineer, not wanting to second guess the editors or otherwise be a pain and besides, I was having fun (mostly) playing radio. However, I was available if anyone wanted my advice, and one of them, Russ, asked my opinion on a couple of occasions, and on another, asked me to interview Ralph Nader, who was speaking at RPI, as well as several other venues in the Albany district on Earth Day. That's a story for another time, perhaps.

Russ was the middle editor of the three I saw during my grad school days, and the one that I had chosen as Technical Editor when I was Senior Editor. If you want to get picky, the decision was supposed to be made in consultation with the both the outgoing Senior Editor and the current Managing Editor. If you want to get pickier still, it was usually Hobson's Choice, and you were lucky if there was someone who was eager to take on the job. There was also the always present danger of flunkouts, although the Engineer wasn't nearly the cume killer that the Polytechnic (newspaper), the Bachelor/Unicorn (humor magazines), or Gorgon (literary magazine) managed to be.

Russ also asked my opinion about one particular article, about the Allman Brothers Band. The question was not about why an article about a rock band was going in the school's engineering magazine? As far as we were concerned, long standing policy was that if someone was willing to write something readable and wanted to put it in the Engineer, it was better than blank pages. Besides, the guy who wrote it was an engineer, so that clinched it.

No the question was about some of the quotes from band members, which contained some words that were scatological, as I recall. I don't remember any profanity (the Allman boys were southern and they did know the difference). Russ wondered if he should say anything about it, put a "rough language" warning, or whatever. I told him to just run it without comment, better to apologize later than up front, etc. and probably no one would care. The other school publications had already had their naughty word battles and hell, it was 1973 already.

I think they got maybe a single letter of complaint and Russ probably wrote the guy a nice letter of apology. Of maybe no one said anything. Like I said, those battles had already been fought to exhaustion.

Russ also asked my advice on what to say about the Editor that would follow him: Deb. As you may guess, Deb was female. Should he say something about it, maybe write an editorial?
And that was another one that I was tired of. The Women's Movement was in full flower around then, and I'd been seeing the "Look! It's a girl!" editorials from our sister (as it were) publications from other engineering schools for several years. It felt like it was getting old.

It also didn't seem fair, to be putting a spotlight on someone just for their gender, just a bit of additional pressure to add to the stuff about trying to do good work in an unpaid extracurricular activity.

Finally, and this was the real source of my discomfort, as long as things like this were matter for comment, then the basic program of equal opportunity for accomplishment was still far from its goal. I just wanted female participation in science and engineering to be unremarkable.

Russ took my advice and wrote an editorial about something else.

There were 50 freshmen women in my class at RPI, and about 1000 men. I understand that the fraction is now about 1/3, and the President of RPI is Shirley Ann Jackson, who was also President of the AAAS in 2004, and Chairman of the AAAS Board in 2005. She is, of course, a remarkable person, and a good sport about Alumni jokes and pranks as well, at least during Reunion Weekends. She still has our microphone, I think, and I can report that she's pretty good at impromptu karaoke.

I'll get to a review of the latest issue of Helix after I've had a chance to read all the stories (first glance: "The Center of the Universe" by Eugie Foster is one of those "fantasy or someone having fantasies?" stories that I like to talk about). All the stories are by women, and to his credit, William Sanders notes that such a thing is almost coincidental and should be unremarkable, though it isn't. And the guest editorial by Website Designer

Melanie Fletcher shows the right degree of annoyance that such a thing still bears remarking upon.

I mean, hell, it's not like this is 1973.

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