Sharpen Those Pen Nibs, Lad! (Or: Gene Marks Feels Their Pain)

I wasn’t going to post anything about Gene Marks’ ridiculous Forbes column of the other day,  “If I were a poor black kid,” which told disadvantaged young people that if they study a lot and use lots and lots of technology, they will transcend the immense structural inequities that shape America today (oh wait, I think “immense structural inequities” might be my wording, not his…)

This was partly because I think Baratunde Thurston did a fine job in a CNN column puncturing Marks’ naïve and pompous “advice”…advice which basically could have come from the mouth of an industrialist talking to an office boy in a bad 19th century novel: “Work hard and keep your pen nibs sharpened, lad, and you’ll go far!”

But there is something so manipulative about Marks’ subsequent response to Thurston, so mistaken in its invocations of technology,  that I want to weigh in.

In his response, Marks repeats his original bullet points, each more reductive than the last, each denying the fact that kids in weak school systems can never achieve these goals simply by sheer force of will.

Here’s Marks’ advice, each “tip” followed by my thoughts:

  • “1. Study hard and get good grades.”  […In which Marks ignores the challenges faced by kids attending underfunded schools operating with huge classes and poor instructional materials, or living with overworked parents who need the kids’ help after school to care for siblings…]
  • “2. Use technology to help you get good grades.” [Ignoring the fact that many school systems can afford neither cutting edge technology nor the staff hours to maintain it and (this is crucial) to instruct students in its effective use; access is NOT inclusion, as Virginia Eubank’s book, Digital Dead End helps us see. Undergraduates need guidance in using Google Scholar; how would a middle- or high-schooler figure it out on her own as Marks’ original column suggests she do? That column shows the depth of his ignorance about how pupils learn to think critically and vet resources.]
  • “3. Apply to the best schools you can.” [Because to Marks, just believing in yourself apparently makes up for the challenges I just listed under “1” and “2”]
  • “4. Get help from a school’s guidance counselor.” [Because, as in the corporate world Marks inhabits, it is not what you know but who you know…? Does he really think the kids are actively avoiding services that are being offered to them?]

The brevity of each point is itself insulting, a gesture that condescends by simplifying.  So it is not surprising when we then read that Marks feels the kids’ pain:

  • “5. Learn a good skill. This is what I said in my blog. I said this wasn’t easy. It’s brutally hard. “

“Brutally hard”, Mr. Marks? Maybe that’s a clue that this is not about the kids’ lack of  discipline and fortitude.

As I’ve written before  in this blog, analyses like Marks’ put tremendous faith in existing systems of education and employment, with technology privileged as a cure-all.  Alongside such conservative logic,  his compassion rings false, to the last note of the response:

“Will any of these kids read what I wrote in Forbes? Probably not. I’m hoping that educators, bloggers and most importantly parents do. Because it will be very tough for any kid to do it alone.”

“Tough,” it certainly is, for many kids of color or low socioeconomic standing striving to find equitable educational opportunities in the United States.  Too bad Marks displays no historical or political perspective on what makes it so; he could start by looking at his own thinking on the problem,  I’m afraid.

Happy New(?) Year

Reading reports about the Bayer Corporation’s new survey of STEM department chairs at U.S. research universities leads to a fairly discouraging take-away.  In asking the  413 chairs for their thoughts on why so many women and under-represented minority students fail to complete STEM degree programs, the survey uncovered two beliefs that have left me less than cheerful.

First, the chairs understand that familiar notions of merit in STEM fields work as a gatekeeping tool that limits diversity:

Specifically, the chairs say being discouraged from a STEM career is still an issue today for both female and underrepresented minority (URM) STEM undergraduate students (59 percent) and that traditional rigorous introductory instructional approaches that “weed out” students early on from STEM studies are generally harmful and more so to URM (56 percent) and female (27 percent) students compared to majority students (i.e. Caucasian and Asian males).

–Bayer U.S. News, Dec. 7, 2011

Second…well, same again:

Yet, a majority (57 percent) of the chairs do not see a need to significantly change their introductory instructional methods in order to retain more STEM students, including women and URMs.

How can these prominent and accomplished educators not see the connection between regrettable social patterns in their fields and the content of their practice? As I tried to convey in my book, Race, Rigor, and Selectivity in U.S. Engineering,  the stubborn character of standards of rigor, the unassailability that STEM disciplines ascribe to those standards, is at the very heart of STEM exclusion.

In summarizing the survey results, Bayer cites Freeman Hrabowski, who warns that we need “a culture change.” Rigor is attainable along with inclusion, Hrabowski says, if we choose to provide support to students who may need it and to faculty who might enact such reforms.  Teaching methods can change without undermining the rigor and functionality of the knowledge conveyed.  That Bayer actually quotes Hrabowski, putting such an outlook on the table, gave me hope for a moment that this survey might make a difference. But one last point from the survey’s findings pretty much burst that balloon:

Most institutions don’t have a STEM diversity plan: Only one-third (33 percent) report their colleges have in place a comprehensive STEM diversity plan with recruitment and retention goals.

33%? In 2011? Is this possible? (Slap forehead in despair, here.) What kind of serious audience is there for Bayer’s findings if only one in three American research universities has even gotten to the point of systematizing STEM diversity?

Clearly, many of the department heads surveyed by Bayer are not happy with existing inequities and believe that some sort of change is needed. But how can even the best intentioned department chairs make a practical priority of an issue that their employers have declared to be unimportant? More broadly:  How many dozens or hundreds of reports, from government, philanthropic and corporate sources, have laid out these same STEM diversity issues over the last 40 years? How many more will do so before something new happens at the university or department level?

Here’s an idea: If Bayer, a hugely influential and wealthy entity, has the wherewithal to conduct such surveys, could we not ask them to act on the results? Not merely to articulate the problem, but act to solve it? For example, what if Bayer campaigned for the creation of a nationwide accreditation or ranking system, encompassing academic STEM departments of all disciplines, that names and shames those institutions that fail to take meaningful action on diversity issues? Perhaps making universities responsive to calls for STEM diversity programming?

Sure that’s a pipedream, likely to be derailed by all kinds of arguments about….rigor!  And that’s exactly why we need powerful voices like those of private industry, understood to be disinterested seekers of new STEM talent pools, to take bold steps like this. If corporations genuinely seek racial, gender, and other kinds of diversity in their scientific and technical labor forces (and, yes, that’s a big “if, but for the moment let’s accept that Bayer’s science education surveys show at least a kind of commitment to inclusion), why not try to change the metrics of prestige for universities, in a way that might encourage that diversity?

That sort of effort by Bayer would make this not just another poll of STEM diversity, but one that might actually change the results of future surveys.