Positive

Beard Stories: Finally

The last day of school. The second-to-last class of the day.

“Ms. G, we have a question.”

This is nothing new. This is how many of my students – and these two in particular – often start class.

“Great!” I reply, as usual.

“Not about biology.”

“Ok!” I’m happy to go off-topic. And, if they’re asking me, even questions they think aren’t about biology often have a biological connection. These are the two whose questions, for months, probed the causes and intricacies of diarrhea, why a person might cry a little while pooping, whether there are biological origins behind the stereotypical lispy “gay voice” of some gay men, the ethics and methods of killing nuisance pigeons, the superhero potential of future human mutations, and whether our class lab methods could be twisted and abused by an evil scientist.

“Why do you have a beard?”

I nearly laughed. Really? Finally? All year they’d been wondering? I assumed they knew. I assumed that the rumor mill had taken care of that. When I told my students nearly 4 years ago that I was going to grow out my beard, I explained it all. I had imagined that this information had made its way through the collective student brain, along with the details of which teachers never checked homework and who was a stickler on tardiness. Apparently not.

“It just grows there. When I was thirteen, hair started growing on my chin. For years, I shaved and tweezed to get rid of it. Then, about, um, five years ago, I decided to grow it out. I was just going to grow it for a few weeks, to try it. But it was easier than I thought, and I liked it, and people responded well, so I figured I’d let it go for a few months. And it was easier than I thought, and I liked it, and people responded well, so I kept it.”

“Oh! Ok. Huh! Wow.” Nods and smiles.

“So it just grows there?”

“Yep. No added hormones or anything. Many men grow beards, but some don’t. Most women don’t grow beards, but some do. Most of those women hide it – I’ve had a lot of women tell me that they have beards that they tweeze and shave, and no one knows.”

“Huh! Really. That’s interesting.”

“Honestly, I’m surprised you’re only asking now.”

“Well, we didn’t want to upset you. We thought you might get mad, since, you know, it’s personal.”

“No, it’s fine to ask. Sorry I didn’t make that clear earlier. I didn’t mean to make you nervous!” I smiled.

“Well, we didn’t know if you’d be ok with it.”

“Well, I’m glad you asked,” I said, smiling.

 

It was a great end to the year. Two of my most delightfully inquisitive and open students, finally getting up the courage to ask a question that seemed, to them, more taboo than all the rest.

I’m relieved, I must say, to find out that the student rumor mill doesn’t work as well as I thought, and also to find out that the students have a strong sense of boundaries. Even if the outside observer wouldn’t describe them as having strong boundaries, as they ask about poop and sex, they apparently do have strong boundaries, just in a different place that I might have guessed. Personally, I like that their boundaries allow them to ask for information that relevant to them, on all manner of topics, but keeps them out of the personal lives of teachers. I don’t know that I would have guess that that was a school and community norm, but I’m pleased to find some evidence that it is. It also reassures me that, hopefully, other details of my personal life will stay personal in this school community.

And, considering this, next year I need to let students know early on that they can ask about my beard, or just explain it during a lesson on gender or hormones.

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Beard stories: Welcome to Oakland

I moved from SF to Oakland a week and a half ago. I’m learning my way around – new errands, new routes, new familiar strangers – clerks, cashiers, etc.   In the Oakland Kaiser Pharmacy this morning:   A black butch-type person, maybe a few years older than me. Wearing black athletic clothes – jersey over tshirt, track pants. Flattened-looking chest, short short hair, no facial hair visible. We cross paths as I’m walking up to the dropoff line and ze is walking away from the counter. “How you get that?” motioning to hir chin. “It just grows there.” Shakes hir head. “Nah!”   “Yep.” “I be hatin’!” ze says enviously. I shrub my shoulders and smile, “Sorry!” Ze smiles.       An older black woman and a 7-year-old girl are sitting across from me as we wait for our respective medications. She smiles and says, “How are you?” I smile, “Fine, thanks. How’re you?” “I’m good, I’m good.” Which would be the end of the friendly-stranger encounter, but she holds my gaze a bit longer, still smiling. Then she turns the book she’s reading towards me, showing me that she’s reading Stephanie Brill’s “The Transgender Child.” She doesn’t say anything more, but still smiles warmly at me in a way that makes me think I should respond. “Ah, I’ve heard good things about that book. I haven’t read it, but I’ve read her other one, on lesbian parenting.” She tells me that she’s reading it because she’s got 4 children  – 2 teens, I think, and I forget the details on the others – who are transgender, so she wanted to brush up a bit. “Ah, that’s great,” I say, while I try to figure out what she means by she “has” 4 trans kids – she’s a parent to these kids? Foster parent? Four is a lot. Teacher, maybe? She explains that these are kids at her church, the City of Refuge, a UCC church in SF. She asks if I saw the parade, because her church sang in the parade. I explain that I didn’t see the parade because I was in it, way back in the lineup. She tells me how the church is moving to Oakland soon, due to parking issues, and that they have people coming from as far away as Sacramento for her church. She invites me to services – Sundays at 1pm – and I smile and say that it sounds nice, but I think my hesitation is clear in my voice. She takes a phone call, lets the girl know that her mama’s meeting them soon, and then goes back to reading her book.

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Beard Stories: Kids

There’s an after-school program for gradeschoolers that meets in the classroom next to mine.

When I left my classroom yesterday afternoon, there was a girl, maybe 9 years old, hair in high tight pigtails with colorful plastic balls on the rubber bands, standing in the hall with her back flat against the wall, looking bored and chastened while her classmates played inside.

She looked at me, and I smiled at her and locked my door behind me.

“Are you a boy?” No emotion yet, just checking.

“Nope,” in a cheery tone.

“A lady?!” her voice incredulous, quiet and breathy.

“Yep!”

She raised her hand to her chin. “You have a beard?” sounding confused, like she was checking her facts, wondering if I was an optical illusion.

“Yep,” nodding.

She considered this for a moment as I walked by her, towards the stairs. “How?” a straightforward question, curious about new information, the kind of tone I hear in my science classes.

“It just grows there,” shrugging my shoulders.

“You should shave it,” she instructed me, having resolved the issue.

“Nah. Too much trouble. And I kind of like it,” smiling.

Her eyes bugged out a little.

At this point I was at the stairway door. “Have a good afternoon!” I called to her as I left.

 

I forget which trans* writer said that they were friendly towards kids asking them gender questions but drew the line at puberty. The writer felt that after about age 12, a person should know better than to ask personal questions of a stranger (or a family member, neighbor, or co-worker for that matter).
I don’t feel the same; I like it when adults ask me curious and non-threatening questions. But, there’s something particularly fun about having a kid ask me about my beard. Their emotions flicker so rapidly, covering a charming range from shock to decisiveness to wonder as they work to fit these new pieces of information into their world.

A good friend of mine has a two-month old, who I’m lucky enough to get to spend lots of time with. It’s fascinating trying to figure out what her tiny brain is making of the changing lights and sounds that swirl around her. When she’s not sleeping, she spends most of her time wide-eyed, staring intently at the ceiling fan, a nose, a hat, a picture of black and white dots. One minute she’s smiling and then next she’s upset, but she spends a lot of the time in between with her little brow furrowed in puzzled concentration. As children sort out the world around them, they spend less and less time astounded, puzzling through the mysteries of everyday events. Grade schoolers still do it a lot, middle schoolers somewhat, adults almost never.

When I teach science, I get to reawaken that “what the heck?” response. I get high schoolers, who think they have it all figured out, to be amazed. I get to make them curious by showing them something completely perplexing. I love the bug-eyed “What just happened?!” look on their faces when I convince them, for example, that plants are made of air or that a clump of atoms has the information to make them who they are.  (I feel particularly proud of myself on days when they actually, literally say things like “Whoa!” or “Wow!”)

I’m only just realizing this now, as I write, but I think this is part of what I like about having my beard. I get to give adults the experience, rare in their grown-up lives of routines and schedules, of encountering something utterly new and yet not dangerous or even upsetting. Usually if an adult encounters something completely new, it’s a scary situation like a disease or a car crash. Outside, perhaps, of international travel, it’s hard for adults to find new experiences in the daily routine of work and home.

On a kid’s face, the stumped curiosity is more visible, but I like catching glimpses of it on an adult’s face, too. I like when an adult is willing to break through everything in their brain telling them they should understand everything already. I like it when an adult is willing to engage with something puzzling, rather than pushing the experience away under the guise of politeness or dismissing it as unimportant to their life.

I like curiosity, fascination, inquisitiveness, and wonder. I like it in babies, I like it in my students, and I think I like it in the people who go a little bug-eyed as I walk by.

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Beard Stories: Tha’s craaazy!

7 pm. It’s dark and chilly, feeling later than it is, in the early-dark way of winter. I’ve been walking for 10 blocks, trying to find the Chinese takeout place that’s 3 blocks from work. I’ve finally figured out I was going the wrong way, turned back the right way, and then overshot by a block. So I’m feeling sheepish as I turn back and walk up the same street I just walked down. I cross the street, both to be on the right side to get to the restaurant and to avoid walking by the same folks hanging out on the sidewalk and looking silly wandering back and forth.

On the corner, there are four tall black men in baggy hoodies. As I walk by, they stare, craning their necks. I avoid eye contact, so I can’t see what their expressions are. It’s dark, they’re big. I keep walking purposefully forward.

Ten minutes later, I’ve got my food, and I step out of the restaurant. One of the men is standing right outside, leaning on a parked car. I make eye contact, and he smiles widely. I’m surprised, and I beam back.

I keep walking, still smiling. The other three men are still on the corner, standing in a huddle, blocking the middle of the sidewalk. As I walk around them, they again lean my way, to see better. But this time I look at them and see that they’re smiling.

“How you grow that?” one asks.

“It just grows there,” I reply.

He tips his head back, in the motion of a laugh. “Tha’s craaazy!” he says, with a smile and a tone of wonderment. He gently backhands his buddy, in a “will you look at that!” gesture.

I chuckle as I keep walking. I look back over my shoulder and smile. “Yeah, it just grows there.”

“Wow!” He nods a few times, smiling.

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Beard Stories: Moving

I’ve been neglecting this blog for the past few weeks because I’ve been caught up in getting moved. It’s been a bit of an ordeal. The place I was so excited about last time I posted (the cottage in Berkeley) fell through – the landlord had a family emergency and couldn’t get the place ready to rent out. But by the time it fell through, I had already made plans to move, and there was already someone slated to move into my old room by Dec 16. So, I was in a bit of a bind… which is a far more delicate way of expressing it than what I actually had to say about various parts of this moving %$#&%.

So, I ended up putting all my stuff in storage and I’m staying with K for a few weeks, to give me more than just a week to find a new place.

I hired movers from the La Raza Day Labor Program, and, as always, they were fantastic. The two men both had names starting with R, which confounds my semi-anonymity habits on this blog, as calling them R1 and R2 seems either impersonal or Seussian. Both men introduced themselves at the start of the day, but after that, their limited English and my limited Spanish constrained our conversations to “Are these going?” and “Las muebles aqui, si.” They worked for eight hours loading and unloading and loading and playing a fabulous game of tetris with my furniture. My friend V drove them from one location to the other, while K rode with me in the truck. After it was all done, V was asking me where I’d hired them from, and I was explaining about the Day Labor Program. I mentioned that I’d used workers from this program a few times before. My first move, the movers handed me their phone numbers at the end, asking me to call them directly if I had any work in the future. Each time after that, the movers hadn’t done that, which made me worry that I hadn’t been a satisfactory employer. Had I not given them enough breaks, or had they not liked the lunch I provided? Had I been annoyingly unclear in my instructions or hovered too much? Maybe the stairs were too steep and windy, and they just didn’t want to deal with that property again. I voiced these fears to V, and she made a confused, dismissive face. “But R said he worked with you last time, moving you out of Market Street.”

My first reaction was to feel shitty – I had clearly spent a whole day with this man before, and I didn’t remember it at all.  I nervously, with a cringing feeling of guilt, ran a quick “-ism”-check. Did I not remember him because all Latinos look the same? Did I pay insufficient attention to him as a person because he was working in a service job?  It took me a minute to remember my beard, to remember that there were various imbalances in our experience of each other – that we had non-equal positions based on race, class, and employer/employee dynamics, but also on freakishness.

But, I still feel a little sheepish for not remembering him.

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Beard Stories: Searching

So, I’ve been neglecting this blog for a bit, because my life has been in a phase of general upheaval, most of it good. (You’ll see me mentioning K a lot more, as he’s become a much bigger part of my life.)

The less fun upheaval has come from an unexpected apartment hunt. Due to some disagreements with my roommates [drama details redacted], I ended up looking for a new place to live, with a potential deadline to get out or face living with a cat and/or angry roommates.

So, as you do in San Francisco, I got on craigslist. Or, more specifically, K got on craigslist and started sending me listings. Which I then screened, compiled into a spreadsheet, and contacted every single one that seemed at all suitable.
By Sunday, I had a list of about ten places to view – back-to-back appointments every half hour or so, driving all over Oakland and Berkeley. At half the places, I showed up for the 30-minute open house along with a dozen other people, all clamoring to get a place to live that wouldn’t drain every last bit of cash. They all looked so normal. A young, thin, feminine, white woman, with her mother helping her look. A 30-ish het couple dressed in sweaters. A 30-something man with a tidy haircut and polo shirt. Some folks asked for applications, some didn’t. At one place, I asked for an application and filled it out as three het couples in skinny jeans examined the studio, yard, and garage. I handed it to the agent, a brusque, long-haired, middle-aged white woman dressed in gardening clothes and asked if she needed a credit report or anything else. She said, “No, we just look at everything all together,” which didn’t seem to make much sense to me. I never heard back from her and she didn’t call my references. A shy, mumbling, middle-aged white man showed an apartment and asked us to list our emails so he could send applications. I listed mine clearly and then emailed him to follow up. There were several others on the list – an undergrad whose mother was asking all the questions, a man with an eager Labrador, an Asian man with black-framed glasses.
I started to worry that the landlords didn’t want to rent to the queerdo (queer + weirdo, a term I like for myself most of the time). I started to wonder if I’d need to shave my beard in order to get a place, just like I shaved it to get my job. Of course, no one said anything about the beard, but then no one ever does.

Over Thanksgiving, I kept looking. I scheduled a half-dozen places on Friday, bouncing around the east bay solo this time, which was much less fun than driving around with K for company. This time, it was almost all individually scheduled showings, not open houses. When I showed up, it was just me and the agent.
As before, I made a point to mention that I was a teacher. As before, I made a point to make friendly small talk with the agent or landlord.
This time, I saw an inlaw cottage in Berkeley that looked appealing. The young black man in a grey hoodie showing the place didn’t have applications, so I pulled an application from the other day out of my trunk and filled it out on the spot. I thought it might seem pushy, but I also thought it would be the best way to get my application in first and hopefully get priority. He seemed to young to be the owner and too disorganized to be a property manager. My guess was owner’s son. Then, I went to see an apartment down in Oakland. The property manager, a very chatty, 40-something, rotund, shiny-headed bald black man in track pants, talked nonstop as he sorted through a gallon-sized bag of keys to try to find the right one. I asked if he had other properties for rent for under a thousand, and he offered to knock the price on a nearby apartment down from $1100 to $1000, “to get the right person in there.” I think I might have mentioned being a teacher, but he hadn’t seen my financials yet, so his suggestion that I was the “right kind of person” had to be based almost entirely on looks. We drove over to see it, I filled out an application, he called in to check my credit, found out it was good, offered to throw in a parking space, and offered the apartment to me on the spot. I told him I wanted to think about it, and he said to just let him know. Then he spent another ten minutes continuing to tell me his life story – how he’d lived near where I live in SF, which schools he’d gone to (since I said I was a teacher). Then he mentioned, apropos of what, I forget, that a good friend of his (or maybe one of his tenants?) directed the Gay Men’s Choir. I perked up, asked who. He couldn’t remember the name, but he thought he had a photo of the guy. He searched his messy desk but could only find a photo of the back of the guy’s head, which didn’t give me enough to figure out if I knew him. But we got to talking about the Chorus and how great it was. Finally, I managed to extract myself from the conversation, to go see one last place.

Two days later, I got a call back offering me the inlaw in Berkeley, which I’ve now got a deposit down on. I get the keys on Friday.

I’m glad that someone thinks that a butch-haired, red-bearded, bespectacled, 30 year old white woman in a tshirt and new jeans is the “right kind of person” to rent to. I’m glad I didn’t have to shave. And I’m looking forward to my new place.

 

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Beard Stories: Wishful thinking

(Originally written September 2, 2009.)

“You used to be in Andy’s lab, right?” asked the professor I was meeting with to see about a job as a grader. Her office is across the hall from Andy’s.
“Yeah. I switched  into Gretchen’s lab.”
“You used to have a beard, right?”
“Yeah!” I’m surprised. Almost no one says anything outright about the beard, especially no one outside the queer leather scene.
“I didn’t recognize you without it,” she says, smiling. I think to myself that clearly that isn’t literally true, but I understand her meaning.
I smile with a little shrug and nod. I’m never sure what the next step is in a conversation like this. My failure at small talk. Or the lack of training in my upbringing on how to converse about one’s beard.
She leans back in her chair a bit, taking a more relaxed, conversational posture “You know, I’ve been with my husband twenty-five years**, and he’s always been clean shaven.” Her tone clearly says that she kind of wishes he’d grow a beard.
“It’s fun variety,” I offer, smiling and wishing that sentence had come out with better grammar. “I’ll be growing it back soon,” I continue to show I agree with her that beards are nice. (As if a woman would grow a beard without having a preference for them.)
“Ah, great,” she says, or some other phrase of approval. “Twenty-five years, and he’s never grown it out…”

And the conversation moves on from there to whether or not I’ll be working for her.

**I actually remember it as thirty-five years, but that didn’t seem to add up with her age. Ten or fifteen minutes later in the conversation, I was trying to figure out if I was remembering it correctly or what she might have said, or if she could possibly be a lot older than she looked and had in fact been with him for thirty-five years. Based on her appearance, twenty-five even seems high, but then I’m lousy at judging ages.

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Beard Stories: Me too

(Originally written August 29, 2009.)

“Large chai latte, please.”
“Venti chai. That’s three thirty-five.”
“Thanks.”
I’m in the DC train station, waiting for the next train to Baltimore. Not in a total hurry like usual.
A black woman in her forties, wearing a beige trench coat and a long, business-woman skirt and blouse, is in line behind me, so we end up standing together waiting for our drinks. She catches my eye and asks, smiling in a friendly, wide-eyed way, “How do you grow that?” with a hint of pleasant fascination in her voice.
“It just grows there.” I reply, smiling back and shrugging. “It started growing in when I was thirteen, and I used to spend all this time shaving and tweezing and plucking and doing chemicals and whatnot. So I decided to just let it grow.”
She’s smiling broadly now. “That makes sense!” she chuckles. “If I had one, I’d grow it myself!” she says with a chuckle.
I laugh and say something generic like “Cool!”
“Venti chai.” The barista sets my drink on the counter. We smile and nod, and I head off to my train.

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Beard Stories: Poker Face

(Originally written August 26, 2009, while I was temporarily clean-shaven in preparation for starting a job.)

 

My aunt A has a better poker face than her husband.
It’s the little widening of the eyes, the tell off a repressed startle. In some people it’s the tiniest flash. In some people I can’t see it at all.

Often I miss the obviously inquisitive ones. D tells me about them.
The waitress at the Chinese restaurant the other day, nearly craning her neck to check my chin for shadow, trying to figure out if I was the same person she’d seen with a beard (maybe 3 times in the past year, but still memorable).
The dyke-looking woman walking down the street towards us who gave me a full head-to-toe scan.
The couple we hiked past, who stopped hiking and turned around to figure me out. D was several paces behind me, so they didn’t realize we were together and that their staring might be reported.

I like watching the eyes though. Seeing if I can see the question, the surprise. Hardly anyone ever comments or asks.

Even when I shaved the beard, almost no one commented.
Joanna asked if I’d gotten a haircut. So did Kyle.
The scruffy guy down at the Lagunitas store asked what had happened to my beard. When I told him, he said he thought it looked good before and I should grow it back.
One of my labmates, Jeff, who I hadn’t seen since April, said “You shaved your beard!” in a friendly, disappointed way. He too seemed happy when I said I was growing it back. Then we asked how each others’ summers had been and he showed me pictures of his newborn son.

I wish I knew what was behind that flash in the eyes. I can see the question but I can’t tell what it is.
I wish I could know what people say and think about me. Not because I want their approval. Just out of curiosity. It’s like a secret. The flash in the eyes is, to me, the little kid taunting, sing-song “I’ve got a secret! I’ve got a secret!” Maybe I’m just nosy. Maybe I spent too much of my teen years with people gossiping about me. Maybe I’m bad at reading people’s expressions and that fires my curiosity more. I want to know who sees me as a woman with a beard and who sees me as a guy with tits and who’s just confused and whose mind works in a way that they see me without an instant label. I want to know what my relatives wonder. I can see all the questions people have, that they don’t ask.

I want a little pin to wear on my backpack strap that says “It’s ok to ask.” Saying that aloud when I see the eye-flash seems rude, like I’m calling them out on an impolite moment. But I want people to ask. For my own curiosity about the questions and so I can give them the answers they’re seeking. The questions I do get are often so simple – “How do you grow that?” “Are you a boy or a girl?” Not hostile, just seeking information.

I want more people to know how to ask respectful questions. How to precede a personal question with “May I ask you a question?” How to gracefully accept when a person declines to answer.

I’ve been told, by other queers and genderqueers, that I’ll get tired of the questions. That I’ll get tired of being an involuntary public educator. But I don’t see that yet. I’m not burdened by people asking me questions. It’s interesting for me to see what they ask. I hesitate to suggest, when teaching workshops on gender, that it’s good for people to ask when they’re curious, because I don’t want to increase the burden on the people who don’t want to answer. But I fear that valuable conversations and questions are much too often avoided out of fear of being impolite. It seems like the standard is to politely pretend like the person is normal. To do one’s earnest best to hide the flash of the eyes and to suppress the questions. I worry about this polite silence – how it denies the “clueless public” these tidbit chances to learn about queerness. For the vast majority of people who will never attend a queer-awareness training, I’m happy to do this bit of public-outreach queer-ally education. I know not every queer is, but I am. But no one starts the conversation.

And, to be honest, I’m not very good at starting it either. I don’t want to force queer education on people who’d rather not know. i don’t want to come across as having an agenda or hosting the all-about-me show.

Speaking of the all-about-me-show, I start teaching tomorrow. So, failing to find a tidy conclusion to this pondering, I’m off to bed.

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Beard Stories: Rare

(Originally written August 19, 2009, when I had shaved my beard in order to get a job.)

 

It’s strange writing up the beard stories while I currently don’t have a beard. I guess it works as a consolation-prize connection to beardedness, while I adjust to the unsettling feeling of walking through the world looking relatively normal.

The curious scientist in me wishes there was a way to rigorously compare people’s reactions to me bearded and unbearded, but of course my presence and behavior completely negates any neutral controls. So, as a biologist raised in the biology culture of looking down on social scientists, I’m now adjusting to the seductive appeal of reporting single, uncontrolled incidents as significant data. The idea that an incident counts because it happened and is therefore true and is therefore important and worth discussing is strange, unsettling and enticing to my well-trained biologist brain.

Actually, this is just one symptom of my larger crisis of confidence in science. Partially influenced by my recent life as an outlier, I’ve found myself receptive to arguments that scientific research and the statistics that support it are problematically reductionist. D loves to remind me of Kinsey’s assertion that those with atypical sexual practices should be viewed not as deviant, abnormal, or diseased, but as “rare,” with all its jeweled connotations of alluring value.
In introductory biology, I was taught to delete anomalous data, presumably because it was the result of poor lab technique or random errors. But, as a proud anomaly, I now wonder. I still believe in the utility of science when it is applied. I can accept that a medicine that cures 99 people might kill the outlier hundredth, but I’m willing to accept imperfect medicine in the interest of saving more lives. Same goes for applied conservation. But, for pure academic work, in the interest of increasing the world’s body of knowledge, I’m becoming less certain of the intrinsic value of research.
I was already frustrated that research concerns itself with the minutiae, and that only rarely does a discovery have implications outside of its community of a dozen specialists worldwide. And now, I’m starting to believe that the practice of research in general is flawed. It’s awfully inconvenient to be losing my faith in research right as I need to finish my masters thesis in biology.
This isn’t quite as bad as when I took a class in existentialism my first semester of college, but it feels familiar.

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