Friday, September 1, 2006

Knitting in Public - Part 2 - The Secret Lives of Scientists

I've got to say that the best part of last month's Knitting and Public Politics post is how others, and especially knitters, have engaged with it.

For example, the general consensus at The Needle and the Damage Done, Knitting History and My Middle Name is Patience is that knitting helps them concentrate, and so actually makes it easier for these individuals to be more publically present and productive and happy. In terms of social interaction, one commenter said "I think knitters knitting in public are a lot more approachable that [sic] i-pod listeners, or cellphone users" but a few more considered knitting, even in public, to be a solitary or private activity (like reading) not to be disturbed by others. Several knitters, however, also commented on the pleasures of engaging with strangers, of always having a ready object of discussion at hand. In others words, the experience of knitting in public is highly variable - which is probably no surprise to anyone.

But knitting in front of other people at work was almost always described as socially tense, and I found the discussion amongst scientist-knitters (?!) at Skeintily Clad to be completely fascinating with its glimpses into laboratory life and science careers, as well as knitting in public. Dharia, "a laboratory scientist by day who turns to the arts at night" posted to her blog the following thoughts in response to my post:

"The thoughts here really hit home for me, as a science grad student. I often wish i could knit during weekly seminars. I'm not bored by them, but its more that knitting would help me pay attention better...And yet, there is no way that i could actually knit during seminar without being frowned at. The professors would definitely think i was not paying attention, was a less dedicated student, or didn't care about the topic...The same goes for down-time in the lab. Every scientist knows that you have lots of little waiting periods throughout the day. 10 minutes here spinning samples, 5 minutes there waiting for a buffer to mix. Its not enough time to do something else, but would be the perfect time to whip out a sock and knit a row or two. But that is WAY frowned upon. People would rather see you browsing web comics or playing sudoku than knitting. Because if you're knitting, you are obviously NOT paying attention to anything else. blah! thoughts from other knitting scientists? How is the culture at your school/job? How could we change it?"

First of all, I'd never thought about how important those "little waiting periods" must be in the everyday experience of space/time in labs. All punctuated equilibrium, or something. But she also draws out an interesting sense of knitting as real power: demanding enough, satisfying enough, to threaten a student's dedication to science and attention to scientists. After all these years, it seems that Sharon Traweek's ethnography of physicists still resonates in science education; a good scientist's first love, true love, should always be science. Actually, I've always liked imagining the scientist who takes science as his lover, caresses her each day, and now I wonder if knitting could be an infidelity of heart, mind and body? I mean, I really enjoy the sense of knitting as a liaison dangereuse in these comments:

"If I have an extended period of time between experiments, I retreat to the library (of a neighboring Department where no one knows me) and knit there. If it's 10-15 minutes, I have, on occasion, knit in the stall in the bathroom. It's gross, but if I've had my share of comics and sudoku for the day, it's the best I can do..."

"I occasionally brought it to seminars, but only took it out if I could sit near the back and hide it."

"I'm sneaky about it, but I knit in lab during incubations... if I'm there after five. Since it's after the work-day proper, if I'm caught I don't care...I'd also like to change people's minds about my ability to pay attention with yarn in my fingers. "

I assume that male (and other female) scientists have their own versions of these behaviours and sentiments as well, but for now let's focus on what these knitters are saying:

"As an ex-grad student (in the trenches for 8 years) and a lab scientist, I can completely understand/remember the frowning upon of things like knitting. I think part of it has/had to do with the kind of odd geek/macho environment, where you were supposed to live and breathe your research - but also not actually be 'girly' enough to do a traditionally feminine craft."

"Knitting in the lab and seminars? Probably not. Yes, it would be nice to fill those minutes with a few sock rows... yes, it would be nice to have knitting with you throughout those seminars... but if you want to be taken seriously, it probably gives the wrong impression."

"I don't knit in meetings because I'm afraid it would make me be taken less seriously. Although there are some meetings that turn out to be a giant waste of time of everyone, other than the person who's enjoying hearing himself talk."

"I managed to stay awake, ask intelligent questions and make head way on a birthday gift yet I was reprimanded since knitting is 'out there' and I’m not respecting the speaker? Yet the five individuals who were napping, the one guy playing chess on his PDA, the doodlers and the gal texting her boyfriend were not reprimanded at all."

"I never let my desire to knit interfere with my professionalism. I was a student pursuing a degree, aiming to conduct experiments that would move the field forward, etc. It was clear to anyone who spoke with me or saw my work that I was dedicated to my project (albeit extremely frustrated by it), and knitting ALWAYS took a backseat to the science. My work is a little different now, and I don't bring the knitting to meetings or knit while I read materials for work...I understand how nonknitters may labor under the perception that knitters are not paying attention. I think it's wise to be sensitive to the thoughts of others (even if they are wrong), particularly to those who may have influence over your future. When you are older and established in your career, you can act however you want and tell people to kiss your ass. While you are a junior colleague with little professional credibility, it may be wiser to toe the conventional line. That's my advice."

Lots to talk about here, but we've also come full circle again. To be a good and successful scientist, one shouldn't knit at work. No matter how nice it would be. No matter what other people get to do. No.

But some girls are still managing to get their knit on at work, one way or another:

"I am a cognitive psychology grad student who spends a lot of time in an fMRI control room running experiments...Since I usually just gab with the tech anyway, I brought in my knitting to gab and knit at the same time. My tech not only thought it was a great idea, she even asked me to teach her! So now we both knit in the control room whenever I'm down there."

"Just follow my example and join a lab where the PI, his wife, and half of the lab knits!"

"I always have a little circular-needles public-transport-friendly project with me and, if I'd knitted during the lulls or the work that's all hands-free listening and talking, it would be off the needles by now. The thing is, I know I'd still be concentrating and my work wouldn't slip, but I'm pretty sure my work colleagues would think it wasn't on. So so far I've resisted, but you might just have inspired me..."

And before we start yelling "Vive la Résistance!" this final comment won't let us ignore the question of privilege:

"Ironically, I have a friend and colleague from Romania who worked in a lab there and she told me that people often brought handiwork because due to shortages of chemicals and whatever there was not much else they could do some days. I suppose we could be glad we aren't in that situation..."

Scientist-knitters are way cool.


Blogger Brenda said...

I'm a senior postdoc in a biochemistry/molecular biology lab. During the work week, I don't feel I could knit in lab, even during the many short incubation times that don't allow one enough time to get into a scientific paper. I would be considered unprofessional. A friend of mine and a fellow knitter and I will bring in new skeins of sock yarn we have acquired to show each other. But we do that pretty quietly. After 5:30, if I am done for the day, but am waiting for my scientist husband to finish work, I'll knit on a sock. I'll also knit on the weekend if I need to be in lab (or I'll read a novel). I figure in that situation, my boss should just be glad I am in working and shouldn't complain about what I do during the inevitable incubations and down times.

I think my boss believes I could concentrate and do my job properly even if I knit, but as an example to others (everyone else in lab has less research experience than I do) I need to look busy with science all the time. Of course, I am at work now wating for cell culture media to warm up, but who knows what I am doing at my personal laptop? The problem with knitting is that it is so obviously not a scientific activity, espceially to the non-knitter.

I have a new knitting blog, and I named it Molecular Knitting, because knitting is very synthetic and the creativity going into different patterns is very organic. Knitting, for me, is like watching fiber evolution, so to speak. And I think my poor description of this process is a large part of why so many scientists like to knit. Perhaps some other scientist knitter could explain this better.

Blogger Su said...

I'm an undergraduate psychology student at a small college. I don't knit, but I do crochet... anything to keep my mind active during a passive lecture.

I find that some professors understand my urge to do something extra while listening to the lecture, they don't appreciate when my crocheting becomes a distraction to the class.

Anonymous Carrie K said...

It all sounds so very sexist, actually. Soduko, manly! Knitting, girly. Everyone knows girls are silly. Bah.


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