Disobedient Squirrel: An Interview with BethAnn McLaughlin
In case you missed it, BethAnn McLaughlin, PhD, won the 2018 MIT Media Lab Disobedience Award along with other #MeToo and #MeTooSTEM leaders Ms. Tarana Burke and Dr. Sherry Marts.
Dr. McLaughlin, Assistant Professor of Neurology at Vanderbilt University, has a secret identity: Edge for Scholars‘ audacious, intrepid, and hilarious Fighty Squirrel.
We asked her how she found her voice at Edge for Scholars and went on to spearhead #MeTooSTEM. Opinions stated below are her own.
What’s been the most rewarding part of leading #MeTooSTEM?
Trainees speaking their truth. It’s been fantastic to watch women and allies go toe-to-toe with big name investigators, advertisers, universities and funding agencies preaching truth to power. These folks give me huge faith in the future.
How have you used the Edge for Scholars platform to contribute to #MeTooSTEM?
Carefully! I am incredibly grateful that Edge for Scholars Czar Dr. Hartmann saw an energy and enthusiasm in me that could be directed for positive change in the lives of academics. She encouraged me to think about health, productivity, sanity and road blocks in a very directed way. She was always pushing for actionable items in my blogs.
As I became more focused on how women couldn’t bend over backwards to overcome gender inequity and “lean in” at the same time without breaking something, I reported on Edge for Scholars things like authorship inequity. I also tried to empower women and trainees to ask tough questions about space and safety.
When I have some super pokey things to say about universities vs. outside factors, I tend to blog outside Edge for Scholars. The last thing I would want to do is to diminish what was an incredibly helpful platform for finding my voice.
Has long-form blogging been helpful in a different way than tweeting or other social media platforms for getting your ideas and message out?
My go-to platforms are Twitter, Reddit and blogging. Reddit is the dumpster fire of truth, fiction, enemies and allies. It’s mayhem, but there are some really woke threads on what works in outing bad folks and finding out important information.
Twitter has been invaluable in finding allies, honing arguments and coming up with solutions. If you think you have a really awesome idea on how to effect change, go on Twitter! They will break you down and build you up again until you really are onto something. I went from “this academic harasshole in a Buzzfeed is bad” to “what are we going to do about it?” However, I think Twitter gets hung up in dragging individuals through the mud a lot.
Blogging, especially with the mandate to come up with actionable items, will force you out of that. Using both platforms, I realized I don’t have a problem with NIH funding people who have been found guilty of grabbing, groping, harassing, assaulting and retaliating against women. I have a problem with leadership failures and a completely disingenuous years-long, do-nothing approach.
When did you realize you’d really made a splash with your blogging and started affecting the wider STEM world?
Most people don’t realize I’m the Fighty Squirrel, but it’s been an increasingly poorly kept secret for a while. I think the thing I’m most proud of, where I first felt the power of blogging to change the community for good, was with our annual March Madness fundraiser for DonorsChoose. We pick some great projects in areas of serious need and hook teachers up with educational materials. The students and teachers are just blown away to see squirrels and professors giving back. It makes me run out of tears every year. Over the years we have raised almost $42,000. That’s a lot of good.
Your post about killing the Rate My Professors chili pepper really blew up on the Edge. Why do you think it got so much traction?
It was super gross? I mean, my single mom didn’t send me to college and grad school to have a website ask 18-year-olds if I can teach, how hard my classes are and if I’m hot. I’m better than some chili pepper. It’s a bad joke that got worse with time and both women and men realized how inane it was and what a bad message it was sending to students. You go out into the real world and tell someone supervising you that they are hot and, um, yeah, that will go poorly. I really couldn’t be happier they responded so quickly.
What’s been most disobedient about your blogging?
Well, I am a Fighty Squirrel, so that should say something about not being particularly obedient. If you ever had a fight with a squirrel—and really, who hasn’t on a campus where squirrels outnumber us 3:1—you can be walking along unaware you are doing something deeply offensive and have a two pound critter scream bloody murder at you. Mad squirrels are no joke and they don’t care how big you are, they will let you know what you are doing is not cool.
I think a lot of us (humans) can go through campus life in our own bubble of male privilege or white privilege or rich people privilege and just ignore people who dare to question us. I mean, we are so educated. So professorial! People are getting some hard lessons these days if they think you can get money from taxpayers or investors and it doesn’t matter who you are. We are really bad at this sort of arrogance in academics and, as they say, Time Is Up. Anyone who destroys or diminishes the lives of someone by punching down instead of lifting up doesn’t deserve privilege. They should get tossed from the Ivory Tower.
The sort of hypocrisy in academia is baffling. Someone in the real world would be in prison for sexual assault, but just faces a secret Title IX hearing on campus? Nope. The only other places allowed to “self police” are the Catholic church and the military. And that isn’t going so well. When your science, your clinical practice, your advocacy doesn’t square with people’s options, their pain and their realities, you should absolutely be chased around by snarky squirrel screaming at you from a blog. It’s the least I can do.
What’s next for Fighty Squirrel?
Fall and winter are natural times of diminished activity for both ground and tree squirrels. Betsy DeVos and many universities have chosen to take advantage of this sedentary time for our species to launch a horrific campaign to diminish protections for victims of assault, grabbing and groping on campus. We are hoping our woke human allies will write a line or three with the help of our friends at HandsOffTitleIX protesting these actions. No one wants victims of sexual assault to have to be traumatized further. Well, except universities that want to protect their asses. Sorry. I meant assets.
And speaking of assets, MeTooSTEM has launched a nonprofit to help the most vulnerable individuals in the system, those who are navigating Title IX, know their rights. A legal retainer to guide a student with Title IX needs is $4,000. We have a plan to streamline this process, but legal costs put justice and transparency out of reach for too many. We have a long way to go to our February 1 first quarter goal, so we are hoping Edge for Scholars readers can connect us with the best friends and fundraisers out there to help during this critical time.
Dr. McLaughlin’s/Fighty Squirrel’s opinions and statements are her own.