A mailing list and identity

posted by Michael Wittmann, University of Maine on

In some private conversations, recently, I’ve been unpacking some stories about the past of PER, told from the perspective of someone who was a grad student in the mid to late 90s. That was not quite the first wave of grad students getting their PhDs in physics departments while doing PER, but it was close. In telling these stories, I’ve found that a lot of the newer members of the field aren’t as aware of them - how could they be? So, I thought I’d share some events from back in the day. It’s not that long ago, and yet it is. Also, to be very clear, these stories are very much my own version of history, and in no way should they be treated as wholly accurate. Others were also there, and I’m sure their voices would tell a different (and fun to read) story. For the record, I wrote a little bit of history in reply to the “First PERC?” post from early September. That was about conferences. This is about something as trivial as mailing lists and the identity that comes from choosing who your community is.

Back in the 90s, the online place to be as a PER newbie was on PhysLrnr. Like all listserv software, names seemed to be a max of 8 letters (hence the missing e in listserv), so there you go: PhysLrnr. In 1994, the internet in its present form didn’t exist, Netscape was a brand new tool, social media was still a decade away, cell phones were not a thing, and pretty much all large-scale electronic communication happened via email lists. PhysLrnr and Phys-L were the two big ones, with Phys-L being more about instruction and PhysLrnr having more about research. Dewey Dykstra, former RIPE committee chair who worked on the Powerful Ideas in Physical Science, was the list owner, but mostly it seemed to be a hands off affair. Long conversation threads existed. (As an aside, the meaning of the RIPE committee to PER is worth writing up, as well. I don’t know enough to do so. But, the origin of it and its centrality up until the creation of the PER Topical Group is something that plays a big role in defining our community.)

It’s helpful to understand how we shared knowledge at the time. AJP was barely publishing PER papers (the editor wasn’t a big fan), and the PER Section was still years away. TPT rarely published research-based work. Phys Rev PER was even further in the future, a dream that we couldn’t imagine could exist. For those working in physics departments, there was a strong need to look like physics - publishing in other journals was frowned upon, culturally, and there weren’t even that many venues for college level research. It’s hard to remember that at one point, citations of talk abstracts in The Announcer were treated as ways of having one’s work recognized. But, going to conferences was the easiest way to share ideas and learn something new, and Announcer abstracts could remind you of the talk you’d seen. That only the wealthy groups could send their students was pretty clear. Then again, there were so few research groups in the field at the time that we got to know each other pretty well over the years.

In this context, a mailing list was a great way to do the thing that academia is all about: building up one’s reputation. After all, reputation is the currency of our field. The problem is, PhysLrnr wasn’t a great place for talking, because many (most?) of the members were not actually doing research. They were talking, but they weren’t basing their work on data in the way that we would, today. Also, the topics that were talked about were really only the physics, with little about identity, little about gender, little about ... well, about most of the things. Sure, some few were doing work in this area, but it was a Big Deal when something as non-physics-y as the Maryland Physics Expectations Survey was published. This is NOT physics, this is NOT physics education research, don’t you go down that slippery slope. It helped that someone with the overall physicist stature of Joe Redish was leading the work on expectations. After all, if the currency is reputation, he had plenty and could spend it on this topic. For others, it was harder, but they persisted, and they succeeded. (I love Laura McCullough’s blog post on this.)

When a group of us were heading toward completing our degrees, around when the first big period of PER faculty positions was announced (I think there were 16 in 2000, or some such crazy number), a bunch of us started talking more extensively. We were post docs and graduating grad students. We were talking shop in a way that others on PhysLrnr were not. We didn’t want to have the same conversations. We wanted our OWN conversations, without anyone looking over our shoulder (without going into detail, there was one prolific poster, and one recurring topic, and it drove a lot of us batty). We wanted to help each other apply to the positions, even when we were applying to the same positions. We had gotten to be friends at years worth of AAPT meetings. When there’s only one PER session per time slot (sometimes only one on a given day!) then you start hanging out together. You eat dinner, you go have a beverage of your choice, you play endless card games in the dorm lobbies because that’s where housing is cheap, you... - you become friends. We were watching each other get married, have children, lose spouses to illness, move, change... we listened, we cared, we attended to each other, we witnessed, and we wanted to help. And we had this email chain that got bigger and bigger.

Many of the people on this email chain had already been at the ICUPE/AAPT “interval day” in College Park in 1996 (see my response to the PERC 1997 post), but many were new to the list. Some were new grad students. Others were NSF-funded PFSMETE post docs, new to our community. (Back in the day before STEM was the branding term, the NSF used SMETE, so these were Postdoctoral Fellows in Science Mathematics Engineering Technology and Education - I think that’s what it stood for, and we all pronounced it Puff-Smeet. Which sounds ridiculous.) PFSMETE alums like Noah Finkelstein, Scott Franklin, and Andy Elby are still active in PER, but there were many others that aren’t as well known now, like Apriel Hodari, who branched out into other really interesting work, as well. Anyway, point is, the mailing list had a lot of members. And big reply-all chains are annoying.

So we started a new mailing list. We kept it kind of secret, because it was meant to NOT be PhysLrnr. We wanted only active education researchers. We wanted people who were the newcomers in academia. We were, ahem, going to take over the world! We were YOUNG PER. So we created a YoungPER mailing list (check it out: 8 letters). We asked some of the folks slightly ahead of us (in seniority and, uh, age) if they wanted to join. They said no, this was a place for us young folks to be together. Two stand out in particular. Both ended up being structurally important (uh, essential?) to the field, but I won’t name them because it’s their story to tell. They were incredibly kind, totally understood what we were doing, and wanted us to have this list. They were also vehement in not participating. They wanted us to do this on our own. I remember feeling this wonderful thing: They trusted us to do right by the community. So, thanks for the offer, but you young folks go off and do your young thing.

So now we had a mailing list. We’d created our own community. We had created an identity of being our own special group, the people Really Doing The Research. We had a culture of supporting each other, helping each other succeed. We shared ideas. We did the things you do when you work well with each other. For years, this persisted, even as we got older. It was grand.

For what it’s worth, the mailing list still exists. I’m the list owner. People have joined over the years, though it was never really clear how people find out about it, or frankly why they do it. (Interested? Get in touch!) Things faded strongly once social media took off (in particular Facebook). Also, the community got larger and it was harder to know everyone in the field, as had been possible in the beginning. For at least a decade, communication has been nearly non-existent. The list right now is more an artifact of a time when mailing lists were the way to talk, and when a group of us were defining ourselves in opposition to a community that we didn’t feel like we belonged to, entirely. In keeping with the theme of PERC2020, it is very much a question of identity. And it hasn’t even been 20 years since the mailing list was created. It’s so recent, and so very very far away, as well. That’s just fascinating to me.

Tags: History  identity  

— Michael Wittmann, UMaine PER and RiSE Center

Re: A mailing list and identity -
Steve Maier
113 Posts

I really enjoyed reading and re-reading this post!  There's reminiscing, historical content, and one can get a sense of the bustle of the fomenting of PER, all leading full circle to due attention to noticing changes that have occurred in the PER community over time.  I recall being actively engaged in PhysLrnr (more as a reader, soaking up the conversations--of which there were many!), while also trying to find my place in the PER landscape. 

Your last paragraph really spoke to me, and I believe it is on-point with the PERC 20/20 theme.  In one sense, there's a subdued sense of loss as to an atmosphere or how things may have been some time ago.  But the fact that what's "old" today still seems as fresh as yesterday is refreshing.  What are the venues are out there today that can facilitate the sense of wonder and excitement that helped so many identify with PER?  How do we keep them (young PER & the venues) going; how do we identify new venues and embrace growth/change?  

PERC 20/20 Conference

PERC 20/20 website
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Email us at perconference2020@gmail.com

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