STEM Education Research: Saying the Unsayable

Last week I attended the 2014 meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education in Indianapolis to look over the current landscape of STEM inclusion efforts from kindergarten through graduate education. This is a huge meeting, with thousands of participants from hundreds of international universities, engineering firms, and funding agencies, along with publishers of educational materials and software, all mingling in something like a million square feet of meeting rooms and exposition halls. It is a social setting utterly central to the reproduction of professional engineering in the U.S. and globally.  Surely this is where STEM education finds its largest, most energized audience…its most powerful allies.

Yet power was the one thing barely discussed during the four-day meeting, whether we mean by that the relative authority and influence of engineering professions, of engineering educators, or of the social scientists who study those enterprises…all of course also relative to that of students, institutional staff, consumers or community members. I heard just a handful of attempts at political, philosophical and moral self-examination; in short, moments of talking about power. Those few encounters stood in sharp contrast to the well intentioned and highly systematic but largely uncritical research and conversation that made up the vast majority of scholarship on offer.

In the latter category I’ll take the following as outliers: First, a surpassingly superficial plenary offered by Mitch Daniels, former governor of Indiana and now president of Purdue University, in which technological innovation and the expansion of corporate opportunity were (naively? disingenuously?) said to assure a uniformly happy and prosperous citizenry. A panel on the “Grand Challenges” of twenty-first century engineering as outlined by the National Academy of Engineering predictably included some voices supremely confident in the value and safety of technical solutions to all manner of human difficulties (even those difficulties brought about by technological enthusiasm in the first place).  But these were the claims of the truly elect in the world of U.S. STEM policy and programming, and in a way of course their sweep and apparent optimism doesn’t surprise.

More typical were papers encouraging us to focus on enhancing student self-efficacy, on filling the nation’s high-tech “skills gap,” and other projects which I have previously pointed to in this blog as often disguising neoliberal ideologies that in fact diminish democratic opportunity structures. A lot of the STEM ed research I heard honed in on students’ individual capacity and achievement as if decades of critical scholarship and activism around class, race, gender, LGBTQ identities, physical and intellectual ablism, immigration and other linkages of identity and occupational marginalization in America signaled only the existence of superficial identifiers instead of deep, persistent social inequities.  One paper by a community college STEM instructor characterized her students as today being “of lower caliber…less motivated, less driven” than those whom she encountered 10 years ago, a disparaging characterization that seemed to dismiss her earlier point that many in her classes had experienced severe economic disadvantage.  Her worry that, “we’ve enabled these students for too long” doesn’t seem to me to hold much inclusive promise.

Tellingly, I heard almost no researchers at ASEE reflect upon their choices to look at gender or race or geography among such categorical options, or ask about who is heard and unheard in our STEM education conversations.  One large “town hall” session explicitly focused on the normally un-askable question, “Why is change so hard in engineering education?” and that seems like a very promising step. But the risks of researching such perturbing subjects to those employed by engineering schools remain huge; there are currently few incentives to questioning the value of our own intellectual and professional commitments. I’ll be reading the proceedings to see if these kinds of reflections appeared in other papers that I may have missed.

By contrast, the folks I heard at ASEE who were explicitly concerned with power and privilege insisted that we make our own certainty and authority our objects of study.  That is: They urge us to acknowledge the powerful subjectivities at work in our own understandings of engineering education.

Consider a paper by Donna Riley, who directly confronted our confidence in evidence-based research and articulated the social construction of that confidence as an instrument of (our own) occupational privilege.  Another paper, by Julia D. Thompson, Mel Chua and Cole H. Joslyn explored the authors’ own spiritualities (vitally, a category distinct in their view from religiosity) as integral to their identity as engineering educators.  Both papers expanded what is sayable in the meeting rooms of ASEE. None of this work, however, suggested that any particular subjectivity will improve or for that matter damage the practice or teaching of engineering.  To have said so would be to imply a core object that is “good engineering”… an entity subject to improvement or damage in some absolute sense. These authors are far too sophisticated to imagine an objectively measurable gain or loss to some idealized notion of engineering. Rather, it is the social relations of STEM they wish to expose along with all the value-laden, contingent judgments about engineering skill and knowledge that are entailed by those relations.

These and a few other instances at ASEE thereby provided a hard look at the ways in which ascribed identities insistently determine eligibility in STEM occupations. The nature of true criticality is that it must admit the possibility that desired change may not happen; here, that means saying that the labor and knowledge systems we call engineering may not tolerate profoundly democratic reform…and these bold papers got very close to that precipice.

But something else going on in that convention center helped pull me, at least, back from that precipice. A remarkable move this year to schedule 12 sessions of LGBTQ Safe Zone/Positive Space ally training throughout the ASEE conference, sponsored by the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP) and four engineering schools (at Rowan University, University of Southern California, Texas A&M, and Michigan Tech), leapfrogged over other tentative, uncritical nods to STEM inclusion at the meeting. Not 1 training session, let’s note, but 12… a choice with the potential, I think fulfilled, to pervade the event with a sense that the social conditions of engineering education and our ideas about identity matter. All of these efforts have raised the bar for what we will call serious, inclusive STEM ed interventions from here on out.

With Friends Like These…: Why “The Triple Package” is So Disturbing

Like many folks who read Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s lengthy piece in the NYTimes today, I’m aghast. The piece purports to be a probing and innovative exploration of “success” in America, following the differing fortunes of persons of various ethnic heritages.  But it seems to me to be one of the most concerted and insidious defenses of ethnic and racial stereotypes we have been offered since the Bell Curve.

In the essay the authors summarize their new book, and if you have ever reflected for even a moment on the self-reproducing logics of ethnic and racial discrimination in America, the book’s title alone will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up: “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.”  Traits? Rise and fall? Cultural Groups??? Each of those terms demarcates an entity, standard of attainment, or category that is utterly arbitrary and which conveniently, seamlessly, reproduces their argument.

I have to ask: How do these people have ANY credibility IN A DEMOCRACY?

Chua (aka, Tiger Mom) and Rubenfeld posit a cocktail of personal attributes that carry individual citizens out of penury and into affluence.  The three “traits” are a “superiority complex” that lends one a sense of one’s own exceptional merit or valor, a sense of innate “inferiority” that drives one forward to achieve, and (la plus ca change!), sufficient “impulse control.”   Certain people, whom they identify by what they believe to be meaningful group affiliations  (for example, as Jewish, Cuban-American, or Nigerian), “succeed” by dint of these attributes and affiliations.

So we are back to Horatio Alger. We are back to the neoliberal belief that individual fortitude is and should be central to individual economic security. We are also back uncritically to delineating group memberships (Jewish, Asian, Black, Mormon…) and attaching functionalist labels (students of Ivy League caliber, people who are insecure…) that confirm our own logic. This last is an idea of “cultural groups” and their experiences that even the NY POST understands is retro!

I could write a book (oh wait, I already did) on the self-referential nature of American definitions of intellectual attainment and how those definitions systematically deny structural racism.  But let me stress here the way that each of the three traits points to individual volition…potentially cultivated, say Chua and Rubenfeld, through family and community influences, but to no avail without the final ingredient: the magic of personal grit.

Yep, that’s right: Grit. Heck, why not “Gumption?” Or how about, “Moxie”? Because frankly, this argument would have been cutting edge in 1943. In that year, a noted expert on African-American education in the U.S. Office of Education, Dr. Ambrose Caliver, described the importance of increased self-discipline for black Americans who aspired to be doctors or scientists. More precisely, he fretted that blacks lacked a “zest for discovery” and were easily distracted by “entertainments.”  A shortfall in self-control was diagnosed asthe problem. During his career Caliver tirelessly fought immense obstacles to black educational opportunity, but he operated with ideas that were nonetheless highly essentialist. This kind of characterization appears to find evidence (lack of fortitude) in a field of data (people who are black) while in actuality, selecting both what counts as evidence and what belongs in the field in order to fit a pre-conceived pattern (a preponderance of blacks who lack fortitude).

I shudder to think of such false empiricism gaining new credence through the imprimatur of Yale Law School (Chua and Rubenfeld’s employer) and the New York Times. But I’m not surprised.  Circular arguments, narrowed ideas of human welfare, deep distrust of collective aims that might transcend self- or other-identity…these are reliably the instruments of privilege in a profoundly hierarchical society.  The concerned tone of Chua and Rubenfeld’s piece is disingenuous and their brief nod to “discrimination, prejudice and shrinking opportunity” disguises a systematic denial of structural inequities in American education and economic institutions.  Packaged, indeed.

 

 

 

 

Apology…Excepted: Anti-LGBTQ Bias in STEM, continued

Some good news: There is now an apology posted on-line from the publisher of ASEE’s Prism magazine.  Norman Fortenberry has taken responsibility all along for the appearance of the anti-LGBT letter in Prism that I discussed in the post just below, and he summarized his reasons for going ahead with that publication for InsideHigherEd.com a few days ago. But now he sees things differently, which is a very welcome turn. Dr. Fortenberry expresses his “deep regret” for his decision to publish the letter and for the “resulting anger, pain, disappointment, and embarrassment to ASEE members, officers, and staff and the LGBTQ community.” And yet, I feel I need to take just a minute to consider this apology.

It’s not that Dr. Fortenberry in any way here endorses anti-LGBTQ bias in engineering; it’s just that he doesn’t strive to dismantle it in any direct way, either.  Somehow that bias does not become in Dr. Fortenberry’s apology an object for our direct attention.  Some subtle qualifiers follow that statement about his deep regret, and I think these suggest a sort of hesitancy that has configured many STEM diversity efforts, certainly some of my own included.  Some of my colleagues have pointed out a few more qualifications and elisions in Dr. Fortenberry’s apology, and I wonder if in articulating these we might open the door to more criticality about our diversity work in engineering.

For one thing, Dr. Fortenberry steps back at several points from explicitly criticizing Dr. Helmer’s original claims about LGBT persons.  In the following passage, he labels these claims not as harmful, but rather as unexpected in conventional discourse. Referring to his placement of Dr. Helmer’s letter in Prism, Dr. Fortenberry says:

 I failed to recognize that there is a balance to be struck between representing a variety of viewpoints and not providing a platform for views that are generally considered outside the mainstream of public debate.

But in characterizing Dr. Helmer’s ideas as merely unusual, the apology discourages us from seeing those ideas as harmful.  They are not simply different ideas from those we may hold or commonly encounter; they are “specious,” and “intolerant and prejudicial,” as ASEE’s own leaders have indicated in their published response to the letter.  Saying that Dr. Helmer’s claims about LGBT persons are “outside the mainstream” lends a neutrality to the patent falsehoods and prejudice on which those claims rest.  Could this possibly have been Dr. Fortenberry’s intention?

In his apology Dr. Fortenberry also notes that:

As a privately published, society-focused magazine, Prism is under no obligation to address issues not directly relevant to engineering education, research, service, or practice

But the existence of ongoing bias and bigotry, and specifically their bold address and forceful elimination,  are entirely relevant to the work of engineering. I find it surprising that a proven leader in the field of engineering education would consider for a moment that identity politics, in all of their manifestations, are unrelated to STEM practice. What is more, with this phrasing, Dr. Fortenberry may marginalize our concerns about Dr. Helmer’s discriminatory words. That is, with this demarcation of “irrelevance,” any upset at anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is also easily deemed to be outside of Prism’s mission.  This feels at some distance from a solid, clear rejection of the bigotry many of us sensed in Dr. Helmer’s judgments.

So where do the lessons in this episode lie? Let’s think again about the checklist Dr. Fortenberry provides of the letter’s damaging impacts: “anger, pain, disappointment, and embarrassment”…Dr. Fortenberry not only regrets his own actions in publicizing Dr. Helmer’s views, but also apologizes for causing our subsequent reactions. But let’s consider whether we really want to wish those reactions away quite so quickly; given Dr. Helmer’s bigoted statements about the health and character of LGBT persons, and his letter’s suggestion that these presumptions should shape engineering education, maybe some anger is needed right now. That Dr. Helmer’s words were framed in terms of his religious beliefs must not deter us from clearly naming them as injurious, as intended to induce shame.  The anger and pain many people felt upon reading them is proportionate to their menace, and that anger and pain when shared can describe and communicate that menace.  To fail to parse in this way the outcomes of discrimination, even unintentionally, may leave some lessons unlearned.

My thanks here to Deanna Day, Erin Cech, Juan Lucena and others for helping me think some of this through. Again, it is gratifying to see the ASEE engage in this conversation, and Dr. Fortenberry’s decision to apologize is not in any way to be dismissed.  But that apology as written just might be foreclosing important debate.  In other words: We still need to talk about this episode.  And with some more conversation, maybe we can come to see why our concern about diversity, however sincerely felt, time and again has failed dramatically to erode the discriminatory profile of engineering.

 

 

LGBTQ Inclusion in STEM: Timidity Won’t Work

The line between “freedom of speech” on one hand, and the dissemination of hate speech on the other,  vexes everyone who thinks about diversity in a democratic society, or at least it should. How do we protect 1st Amendment rights without also empowering those who want to broadcast bigoted or demeaning messages?

We don’t usually face the problem of drawing this line in our work for STEM diversity, a notably polite and measured arena of social exchange. For one thing, moments of gender, racial, age, LGBTQ, or (dis)ability-based discrimination are today commonly enacted without the use of epithets or overt derision in STEM classrooms and workplaces, and even (especially) those who are its direct objects are taught to question their impressions of bias rather than their instructors’ or bosses’ behaviors. That tentativeness shapes the way many of us study identity in STEM disciplines, as well.

Then when we do recognize it,  our responses to discrimination don’t often rise to the level of audible anger. We’ve developed the habit of seeking “respectful dialog” as mostly, we try to  redirect the thinking of those who traffic in bias and stereotyping; a constructive impulse, perhaps, but not always a way of speaking truth to power. It’s partly a matter of self-preservation, of course: Activism, anger, noise?…not the marks of the mature student, or professional educator or engineer.

But a funny thing happened on the way to diversity in engineering this morning…and I am newly worried about the quietness of our STEM diversity efforts,  about the sheer timidity of our discussions around difference and inclusion. And mostly: about our reluctance to censure powerfully those who traffic in hateful rhetoric.

Here’s why I think that avoidance of rigorous yet vigorous confrontation is doing us harm:

Several times a year, the American Society for Engineering Education produces a publication dedicated to STEM diversity. If you haven’t seen it: Prism routinely carries pieces on inclusive efforts in engineering pedagogy, and puts engaging and often thoughtful coverage of the topic in the hands of folks who might not otherwise have convenient access to such ideas.  Sure, it sometimes “celebrates difference” with an apolitical gloss, but it also weaves inclusion into the quotidian work of technical education…helping to naturalize and normalize engineers’ attention to privilege and disadvantage. Not a small thing.

But the September 2013 issue gives space to a profoundly disturbing counter message, as Donna Riley, an LGBTQ activist and associate professor of engineering at Smith College, has brought to my attention.  A published letter to the editor from Wayne Helmer, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Arkansas Technical University,  reads as follows. Please take a minute to read the whole thing, to absorb the full meaning of Prism’s decision to publish this letter.

Is All Diversity Good?

As a member of ASEE for a number of years, I have been rather fascinated by recent diversity articles in Prism and on the website. These commentaries seem to suggest that diversity is to be strongly promoted in education: Any and all diversity is good and the therefore should be encouraged.

But is it? Is diversity in sexual preference good if:

    • -the behavior takes 5 to 15 years off of a person’s life expectancy?
    • -the behavior proliferates sexually transmitted diseases?
    • -the behavior promotes a sexually promiscuous lifestyle?
    • -the behavior is addictive and abusive?

We would do well to teach the truth about the homosexual/lesbian/bisexual/transgender lifestyle. These dear people caught up in this destructive way of life need true help and true hope and not encouragement or approval of a detrimental, negative lifestyle. They deserve better than that. This is not God’s plan for their lives.

Beyond the physical, their emotional and spiritual needs are just like ours: Their need for abundant life (emotional) and forgiveness of sins (spiritual) is only what Jesus Christ can give them [John 10:10, 3:16].  Only he can truly change lives and give people the healing and forgiveness and self-worth and significance that they [and we] all desire and need.

 And that is the truth all of us need to hear and proclaim and submit to.

–Wayne Helmer, P.E., PhD., Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Arkansas Tech University, Russellville, Ark.; at Prism-Magazine.org, September 2013

This, to me, is very close to a kind of hate speech (persons of LGBT identity are “abusive”? “destructive”? disease-transmitting?), and I think we need Prism to know that’s how it sounds to some of us.  Riley has written a letter to Prism’s editors in response to Helmer’s that dismantles his  construction of amoral and “dangerous” sexual identities,  challenging his categories of normalcy, health,  and virtue.  She shows, too, that his tone of unassailable devotion would make little sense to a great many religiously observant engineers.  I’m not sure Prism is going to publish it, but I share it here for its probing humor and vital point that Helmer’s view carries destructive and exclusionary messages to Prism’s readers:

 

Professor Wayne Helmer asks if LGBT engineers should be welcomed in the profession, expressing concern that “the behavior” is addictive, abusive, shortens life expectancy, and promotes disease and sexual promiscuity. I am not sure exactly which behaviors he means to implicate. CAD can certainly be addictive, especially with the emergence of next generation fab labs, but is it abusive? Is it spreadsheeting that promotes disease, or is he referring more broadly to any activity involving shared keyboards? I am pretty sure he’s right that those all night problem sets and marathon code-debugging sessions probably took years off my life. And I suppose heat transfer in open channel flow might have something to do with sexual promiscuity, but I’m still experimenting with noise and vibration.

 

The relevant behavior of LGBT engineers is our engineering behavior, which should be encouraged – no matter what couplings we have or how prurient minds imagine they might fit together.

I appreciate Professor Helmer’s concern for my soul as well as my body, but as a bisexual engineer who is also a practicing, self-affirming Presbyterian, I note that not all Christians believe as Professor Helmer does, and in fact national denominations including the Episcopal Church (US), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Friends General Conference, and my own Presbyterian Church (USA) have welcomed LGBT people as professional leaders in their local and national organizations. I hope engineering catches up quickly; we risk losing not only LGBT talent, but also our allies who won’t tolerate an intolerant profession.

–Donna Riley, Associate Professor of Engineering, Picker Engineering Program, Smith College

 

I couldn’t say it better than Riley.  So I’ll just try to make sure a few more people hear her say it.  I know I said that our politeness was not doing us any favors, but, thank you for listening. Now: Get mad.

Rank, and then, File

A compelling piece appeared on the American Physical Society News website a while ago that  just came to my attention.  (Thank you, Michael Fisher!)   Author Casey W. Miller, an associate professor of physics at the University of South Florida, asks the physics community to consider the poor record their discipline holds around gender, racial,  and ethnic inclusion.  That pattern has been documented for years and is the subject of plenty of conversation, but as Miller makes clear, it is not a problem that exerts any broad or consistent practical purchase on the field.

Miller’s column is a model of careful argumentation that is worth keeping on hand for its clarity  around an intractable social problem. But I think there’s one particularly transferable lesson in the  piece:  Miller makes a direct and powerful connection between university ranking systems (such as that propagated by US News)  and a lack of diversity in physics graduate programs.

The GRE scores of admitted students factor into these numeric comparisons among programs in many disciplines, and with the ACT and SAT test scores deployed by undergraduate programs impel admissions decisions for virtually all U.S. schools. Not surprising to the readers of this blog, most likely, is Miller’s case that the heavy reliance by physics graduate programs on GRE scores impedes gender and racial diversity in that field.  We learn that women and students of minority background intending to pursue the physical sciences tend to score lower on the GREs, often falling below cut-offs for admission.  But more surprising perhaps, Miller then summarizes previous studies that have shown GRE scores to be poor predictors of research success among physics students, undeniably ” the aim of the PhD.”

What’s going on here? How does a field like physics, that many of us would generally think of as profoundly reflective about its own knowledge-making, about its own ways of seeking and handling data, end up with such a deeply skewed and selective relationship to data?  By defaulting to conventional (and discriminatory) ideas about how easily people can be converted to data.

That many factors determine an individual’s performance on a standardized test has long been understood by researchers, and the list of those factors keeps growing.  Physics professor Suzanne Amador Kane reminded me about the article in the NYTimes by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman a few months ago. That piece summarized new research on biological contributors to students’ stress-while-testing and the variable psychological reactions that different students have to that physiological experience.  We should of course approach all such genomic and bodily explanations with great care because, given the strength of discriminatory social structures in the U.S., those explanations tend to displace social factors in our analyses.  But that’s all the more reason to question the very term “standardized testing.”  And, to remember that the link customarily projected between STEM fields’ selectivity and practitioners’ promise or rigor, as I keep saying, needs to be seen as an arbitrary one.

What I’d highlight from Miller’s version of things is this: The use of scores certainly restricts participation in higher education and relies upon discriminatory social categories. But it also serves as a perfect disguise for our exclusionary educational habits; the symbolic values of testing and ranking are immense in STEM disciplines. Score-based admissions and the resultant rankings of universities on their basis suggest the pursuit of both quality and impartiality by higher ed. Those commitments are assuredly claimed by all disciplines, but the world of STEM expertise has a special investment in the objectivity of quantification.  Throughout the world of science, comparisons among bits of data (as rankings by their nature perform), reassert the value of both individual measurements and of the metric itself…that is, they help validate the very act of measurement.  But the understanding of test scores as a reflection of students’ promise and the veneration of those scores through school rankings are far from fair, and Miller helps us step back from that habitual, uncritical, numerical embrace.

Beware the Algorithm: STEM Recruitment Meets Big Data

Big Data, it seems, is suddenly very big. Among the social scientists with whom I spend time, newly massive, deep-tissue-massaged bodies of data have found currency.  As a research tool, the emergent technique seems to promise a rehabilitation of conventional, sometimes dismayingly narrow, quantitative analysis because it involves the use not just of MORE raw material but also of unprecedentedly nuanced software. So, unlike old “Small Data” projects, the empiricism of Big Data research feels like it is rooted in an especially flexible and expansive kind of inquiry.  As more and more media, public and private institutions, and cultural enterprises of all kinds operate on-line, the idea that our research subject (manipulated data) and method (manipulating data) shall coincide seduces. But perhaps caution is advised.

I recently attended a social science workshop in which the taxonomic, counting, and graphing choices being made with Big Data seemed to be tripping along with a minimum of criticality and reflexivity.  Not one among the sociologists, anthropologists, and cultural historians attending suggested that the new scale of data-collection and warp speed of data-crunching might hold totalizing risks for the analyst.  In the bigger-data-sets-are-better atmosphere, Foucault’s point that in rendering a subject knowable we reproduce power seemed lost amidst the intoxicating possibility of…the comprehensive.  That this feature of Big Data holds profoundly political implications became clear to me when I read a piece in yesterday’s New York Times by Matt Richtel on the role of Big Data in enhancing inclusion in STEM.

“I Was Discovered by An Algorithm” is not about the social sciences per se, but it is about the use of extraordinarily large data sets for ostensibly value-laden purposes. The article introduces readers to “work-force science,” a new-ish field in which human resources personnel mine massive amounts of data to determine both which sorts of qualification and which individuals may best suit a particular job category or position. In the case of computing professions, the growth of on-line code sharing and programming provides a ready-made body of data that can reveal, proponents say, unrecognized talent. This system supposedly corrects for social biases triggered by our faces or resumes to expand hiring pools and individuals’ opportunities, alike.

But the notion of hidden STEM talent is one I’ve long been concerned about and its mention here alerted me to a conservative deployment of Big Data. Defining the problem as one of unrecognized talent is a way of seeing under-representation in STEM without asking questions about opportunities…about discrimination in education that might preclude an individual’s development of technical interests. Nor does it let us ask about the inherent oppressions of segmented industrial labor , a system that minimizes workers’  chances to learn and grow through work. To me, such searches for promising but as-yet-unrecognized STEM workers have presented a seemingly inclusive agenda that manages systematically to ignore such structural inequities.

Consider the framing of data-driven STEM hiring described in Richtel’s piece. Vivienne Ming, chief scientist at the start-up firm, Gild, approaches the mining of Big Data as a way to evade the biases traditionally found in hiring, including gender, race, and the presumptions we make about one another based on university attended or jobs previously held.  The main case covered in the article is that of a young programmer who never attended college but who, once in range of Gild’s “automated vacuum and filter for talent” (as Ming calls it),  was revealed to possess exceptional capacities.  He got the job. To Ming, this approach to recruitment lets the firm “put everything in,” and then lets the “data speak for itself.”

But of course, data can’t speak for itself; only for those who have given it meaning. Despite Ming’s articulated concern with inclusion,  per Gild’s algorithm (and their Nike-esque catchphrase, “Know Who’s Good”), it is only success along existing standards of technical efficacy and productivity that identifies the outstanding programmer. Automating this determination may be great for the firm, but it hardly constitutes a significant push-back at discriminatory conditions. There are doubts expressed in the article about this HR approach, but these are themselves telling about the obfuscatory power of meritocratic logic in industry. Some observers worry that subjective features such as a candidate’s “people skills” are occluded with this kind of data-based hiring. Others want more finely grained objective tools, such as those at Gild who are eager to hone in on prospective employees’ most specialized technical skills. But the superficial differences between these complaints are deceiving. Both thoroughly detach hiring criteria from the social and political conditions in which those criteria arise and which those criteria faithfully reproduce.

I have lately been reading a remarkable book on industrial personnel practices by professor of management Barbara Townley , which considers “power, ethics and the subject at work” from a Foucauldian vantage point.  She reminds us that the field of human resources has always been about constructing the individual as an object of knowledge, not about “uncovering” some essential self in the prospective employee.  Work-force science, predicated on letting data “speak for itself,”  seems exquisitely suited to (in Townley’s phrase) “render organizations and their participants calculable arenas,” and to do so  unceasingly “in service to the profitability and productivity of the organization.”  To claim, as Ming does, that the largest bodies of data ever deployed for HR purposes will somehow transcend the foundational values of corporate HR seems like selective logic. Personally, I will now be mining Townley’s work for ways to understand the social instrumentalities of Big Data.

Proudly Public: Standing with California’s Faculty

This week, faculty senate leaders of all three public higher ed systems in California (the community colleges, state colleges, and University of California system) made the bold move jointly to express opposition to a plan that would encourage major growth in massive on-line courses, or MOOCs. The idea of the shift to on-line instruction, floated as a bill in the California state senate, is ostensibly to relieve serious overcrowding and budget shortfalls in the schools. No one would argue that those problems are not real and pressing. But faculty rightly detect a hasty and pedagogically insupportable scheme here.  As Ry Rivard reported in InsiderHigherEd‘s piece, “United Opposition,” their collectivity represents push-back of an unprecedented level.

And we thank them: Instructors in all fifty states, teaching at all levels, should be deeply appreciative of these raised voices. We should lend our voices in support.  And I include those of us who teach at financially secure, private institutions, too. And, yes, especially those of us with tenure.

The California instructors are, we must see, resisting the redefinition of higher education as something that exists to maximize economies of scale. To squeeze labor. To channel wealth to those who already possess the means to become wealthy.  Efforts to effect that redefinition have ebbed and flowed in the history of America’s community and state colleges in particular, always portending the greatest losses for students of lower socioeconomic standing who cannot afford the “artisanal” offerings of private higher education.  But the swift pivot towards MOOCs as exemplified in California is potentially a deeply regrettable trend for all teachers and learners.

For one thing, it is a “solution” that treats human instructors, student communities, and the provision of sufficient classroom space as the “problems.”  When such foundational pedagogical commitments are conceptualized as inherently wasteful, even tenured faculty should be afraid.

But more broadly, California’s embrace of MOOCs here entrenches socially conservative functions for schooling that have always devalued the learning (and intellectual potential) of those Americans with the least economic resources.  Such stratifications bring a set of rewards that are also dangerous for a democracy, often turning the nation’s privileged scholars and students away from criticality about the system and its differential impacts.  Under such conditions, the potential for a more fair and equitable nation shrinks with each step towards economically expedient education.

The proposed course providers in California right now include for-profit companies such as Coursera and Udacity.   During a discussion of on-line coursework with Cal State Monterey Bay faculty this week, Sebastian Thrun, co-founder of the latter company, said the firm was actually “proudly for profit.” That turn of phrase should stop all of us in our tracks. Whatever politicians and ed policy makers in California may be saying about their motivations for moving higher education on-line, Thrun’s pose here is triumphal: This is not privatization under emergency conditions; this is industrialization without regrets….for the industrialist and his patrons, at any rate.  Mine are forming already.

 

[With thanks to theoutsidereader.com for rapid technical support.]

…And Repeat: “Access” ≠ “Equity”

In the pursuit of more affordable higher ed for more Americans the idea of “direct assessment” strikes many as promising, as Paul Fain reports in “Beyond the Credit Hour,” on InsideHigherEd. This is a move to use  competency tests, rather than numbers of credit hours taken by students, as the measure of degree-program efficacy.

The Dept. of Education has just now expressed support for this shift to “competency based” programming, allowing federal approval for programs that embrace the new system.  It is a system that strongly  favors on-line instruction… Some associate degree programs, Fain writes, have put aside not just credit hours but also courses and professors altogether in order to maximize  such instructional “flexibility.”

I won’t rehearse our debates regarding on-line instruction, except to say that at the very least this is a shift that is predicated on self-paced learning and by definition it will best serve those who are able to achieve mastery without a tremendous amount of guidance or who are uninterested in community and collaboration…Welcome, neo-liberal learners!

And “competency,” you say? I’ll try not to get started on the gap between “assessment” and “accountability” in American higher ed.  Instead, I’ll stress some of the rhetorical work being done here to hide deeply entrenched educational inequities.

First, we have a troubling use of the term “affordable.”  No professors or courses? Self-guided learning? Hmm….Prices for these credentials will drop, yes, but only because the value of these products to their makers has also been reduced.  We have long known that in education, when costs to consumers drop we rarely find value being added elsewhere by producers.  There are no bargains in education, only savings. So let’s not encourage “affordability” to  become the next “diversity”: A reassuring incantation that replaces systemic critique.

Then, there’s also that idea that educational “flexibility” is necessarily somehow empowering to students.  That premise proceeds in this case from  a highly selective logic about technology, a logic that once again finds democratic potential in the ostensibly dematerialized features of the Internet…that decentralized, customized, always-available-go-at-your-own-pace-technology-of-the-people.

But think about the population most desperately in need of more affordable higher education in the United States.  Even if inexpensive options for high-speed, reliable connectivity pervaded every community in America and lap-tops came free with every fill-up (equally absurd scenarios at this point),  we are still talking about millions of people trying to continue their education in the face of long work days, child- and elder-care responsibilities, worsening health care for themselves and family members, and in many cases, backgrounds in weaker public school systems…clearly an uphill battle for many.  The choice to discard credit hours in favor of some other metric of learning may loosen traditional notions of when, where, and how higher education takes place. But so what?  If this fabulous new strategy won’t even acknowledge, let alone correct those profound structural impediments to the meaningful expansion of educational participation, is it really changing anything at all?

 

Who’s Minding the MOOCs?…continued

In trying to understand how American high-tech education forecloses political criticality, I’ve been reading a 1982 article by Michael Ryan in Yale French Studies called “Deconstruction and Radical Teaching.” Ryan writes of emerging  justifications for the growing capitalist influence on “the social and cultural life of the U.S. and much of the world,” including as that influence was becoming an integral element of higher education. In so many ways this piece shows that the rhetorical work being done by claims of  industrial “innovation” in the Western university today—mapping an unassailable pursuit of collective social and economic uplift, bringing all good things to all good people—was performed by evocations of “integrity” a few years ago.

Proponents of corporate involvement in academia in the early eighties celebrated the university’s “disinterested” character,  bathing their own economic interests in the warming light of academic freedom. Here’s one of Ryan’s great summations:

By assigning ‘integrity’  to the university, conservatives define their own project as an effort to maintain or restore a spuriously natural condition of purity of wholeness. The postulation of a normative attribute like integrity permits any radical attempt at modification to be characterized as a disintegrative degradation, a falling off from nature. Restoration of ‘integrity’ will consist of curtailing that new development. (p. 48)

So much to think about here, including the American university’s now entrenched deployment of rationality, “reasonableness,” and all that Ryan says constitutes the  “benign face of power, coercion, and the everyday brutality of patriarchal capitalism in America.”

But for the moment, here’s a question: How can we keep our eyes open for the next rhetorical restyling of this conservative, anti-constructivist agenda? “Diversity” in many settings certainly continues  the constrained, “What’s not to like?” institutional form it took on in the 1980s.  What new higher-ed headliners, disguising established privilege as social good, should we watch for in 2013?  Are they with us already?   “Entrepreneurship,” maybe? Sure, but more of a parade float for capitalism than a Trojan Horse. “Lifelong Learning?”  Definitely, as Foucauldian observers have amply demonstrated.

Perhaps, though, if the most ostentatiously reasonable and democratic priorities of the university are those  we must approach most cautiously…what about “MOOCs”?  As Carolyn Foster Segal’s  thoughtful InsideHigherEd piece of the other day (contra Thomas Friedman’s celebration) makes clear, MOOCs propagate the morally unifying, disciplining effects of education, not the potentially critical and unpredictable experiences of pedagogy.  As Ryan might say, here’s collectivity of a very particular kind….

 

 

 

 

The Closing of NanoInk: What Social Scientists See

Last week I visited UCSB to talk about ideas circulating around labor, education and high-tech innovation in America today. I had prepared a couple of talks that weren’t exactly upbeat;  I have little confidence in the promises currently being made about biotech, greentech, and nanotech as sources of “middle skills” jobs, as this blog has made clear. As I was getting ready to speak, I noticed a flurry of emails coming in.  Friends and colleagues were forwarding me a stunning bit of news: Crain’s Business in Chicago was reporting that NanoInk, Inc.,  a company that has for a decade operated outside the city manufacturing nanotech inscription apparatus and related applications, had closed.

The firm had shut with little notice.  The short version of the story, as Crain’s has it, tells us that Ann Lurie, the main investor in NanoInk who had contributed $150m to the firm over the last ten years, no longer felt that her investment carried acceptable levels of risk.  She retains her faith in nanotechnology as a field of research, we read, but the return to date was too slow, too small, to assure (in her mind) an attractive future for the company and its several spin-offs.

NanoInk, located in the old industrial suburb Skokie, had grown from R&D visions of prominent nano-scientist and -advocate Chad Mirkin at Northwestern University, but the company had also developed a relatively affordable, instructional version of its instruments along with curricula for use in high-schools and colleges.  Thus it figures largely in research I’m doing with sociologist Mary Ebeling. We are writing about the idea that a nanomanufacturing sector promises wide-spread employment to those with 2-year degrees as “nanotechnicians.”  NanoInk represented one of the most concentrated efforts we had encountered aimed at projecting a world of successful nanotech R&D; widespread application and scale-up of that research; and expanding nano-focused post-secondary education and employment.  Local politicians and educators partnered with the firm on a great many projects meant to build on the emergent “nanocorridor”…even a new Skokie station for the Chicago El, to bring in the projected crowds of employees of NanoInk, other high-tech start-ups, and (it was hoped) newly busy diners and shops in the neighborhood.

Are we surprised that the company and its associated civic projects did not achieve the promised traction? No, but there is no satisfaction in being right. The company was at the heart of a high-tech incubator in a community in need of economic renewal.  The confidence of NanoInk’s leaders and personnel, and of its backers in local government offices, university departments, and nearby community colleges was palpable.  Everyone we spoke to along the way about NanoInk and its plans—from the company’s own lab techs and executives to the township’s economic planners and shop owners—was fired up, and it gradually became impossible to say that any particular expression of enthusiasm was clearly a bit of self-serving sales pitch rather than something more generous… perhaps intellectual excitement, or civic pride, or the desire for economic uplift for the region.  Maybe Patrick McCray’s idea of “visioneering” helps capture it: emergent science and technology wedded—practically but zealously– to the pursuit of a “better” future…but here on the part of everyone involved, not just the tech experts.

So if intentions themselves were not the problem, what can we learn about the failure of this enthusiasm  ultimately to translate into economic opportunity, to produce those new jobs? We’ll tell the story of the company’s aspirations and the complicated ripple effects of its closure in our book, but for the moment I want to point to one quote in the Crain’s story.  One faculty member at Oakton Community College, part of a network of educators and policy makers in the region who helped forward the vision of a near-term demand for  “nanolabor”,  spoke in the Crain’s piece of the changed status of his program:

“It was sad news,” says John Carzoli, a physics professor at Oakton. “We’ll use the instruments they provided until we run out of supplies or it breaks down…”

OCC may keep aspects of its nano-focused curriculum going, but the poignant note he sounds seems undeniable.  The school’s program, like so many at our  community colleges, functions downstream of corporate decision making and, not to put too fine a point on it, was born and may die by the fortunes of industrial capitalism.  The school, its students, its community, have little security as capital follows its own needs.  This, too, is risk.

I hope our book can do justice to all of the enthusiasm of NanoInk’s personnel and the tireless efforts of the community college instructors who see the sector as a promising one.  But perhaps we can also point the way to some “trickle up” by which the risks taken by public school systems, students, and workers, the critical priorities not of investors and boosters but of these other stakeholders,  may carry more influence in future planning.  Rather than cluck our tongues at NanoInk’s folding, let’s focus on this: What might that influence look like?