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?

Mind The Skills Gap


Edie Fraser, meet Adam Davidson.

Fraser, an expert on human resource issues in STEM-dependent industries, is the author of “The Root of Real Jobs: Filling the STEM Talent Gap.” This piece appeared in the Huffington Post the other day and can best be described as skills-gap boilerplate. The widely circulating trope that she makes central to her column depicts thousands if not millions of technical jobs in America going unfilled due to an underprepared national workforce, and as a result, citizens going jobless and the US slipping ever lower on the global economic pyramid.

Davidson, who co-founded the Planet Money blog for NPR, for his part offers a badly needed corrective to that mistaken picture.  In  an NYTimes piece this week, he emphasizes that the notion that we are suffering from a simple unmet labor demand is misleading.  That view implies that the challenge we face is the insertion of workers into waiting manufacturing jobs, no questions asked about those jobs. Instead, Davidson points out, wages in the vaunted high-tech manufacturing sector barely exceed those of fast food jobs, and these positions are notoriously insecure in light of employers’ commitments to the outsourcing and automation that lower their wage costs.  Given those conditions it isn’t unreasonable for un- and underemployed Americans to balk at undertaking specialized training for jobs that seem little better than those near the  bottom of the service sector.

As a handful of others have also pointed out, if the unfilled tech positions were really the result of a supply-demand imbalance, wages would rise until workers felt impelled to fill the “gap.” (See my post of a couple of weeks ago, on Peter Cappalli’s introduction of this point on 60 Minutes.)

Davidson is not unsympathetic to the plight of employers, including one he interviews who is reluctant to hire those coming from “union-type” backgrounds expecting pay levels the employer sees as unsustainable if his business is to survive. And in that sense, Davidson reminds us that this is a system that traps multiple participants (both high and low on the socioeconomic and opportunity ladder) in potentially unjust economic structures.  Important to remember though, is that the business owner has property in hand while the unemployed worker does not. They are not equally vulnerable to (or responsible for!) the system’s injustices.

Obviously, just to recognize as Davidson does that a wage deficit (and thus potentially, a profit excess) is at the heart of the problem is to be far more progressive than the skills-gap explanation would allow one to be. We do hate to see our cutting-edge manufacturing enterprises as anything other than, well, cutting-edge, but the social inequities inherent in the skills-gap rhetoric are as old and robust as American industrial capitalism itself, and Davidson helps us see this.

But I’d push Davidson still further. Both he and Fraser mention that more and better education could help everyone here, workers and employers.  Yet even though Davidson mentions a faltering “social contract” among workers and employers, neither writer points out that the underlying rationale for feebly funded and ill-conceived schooling in America historically derives from the same social priorities that make minimizing wages a reasonable aim for employers.  A legitimation of maximized socioeconomic differences among Americans is at work here, buttressing both the nation’s under-resourced education system and its low pay scales.

I know, I know: That plaint is becoming a bit of boilerplate in this blog.  But the constant reissuing of  uncritical statements about the burgeoning high-tech labor sector, like Fraser’s, even amidst apparently genuine concern about opportunity and diversity, is infuriating to me.  Calls for improved STEM education fit all too tidily with the obfuscatory concept of a STEM skills-gap; each formulation lends meaning and validity to the other.

But STEM education is not a panacea, as incisive writers on the “vocationalism” of US community colleges make abundantly clear (Brint and Karabel’s 1989 book, The Diverted Dream, remains invaluable here).  Education for jobs fails to bring widespread employment partly because of the very real lack of school/industry communication that Fraser cites, but also because the system isn’t designed to maximize knowledge and economic mobility among American citizens; instead it functions to assign different populations to different levels of occupational eligibility, many to a level with little real opportunity.  Without more of that kind of deeply critical thinking about undemocratic social structures, all the talk in the world about skills, jobs, and the gaps between them is not going to help the American worker.

“Shiftless” in America

Itching to know which ideas about the economy actually solidified during the recent campaign season? Which ones Obama toted, intact, through the onslaught of right-wing rants about the 47% (according to Romney, people who remain jobless because lazy…or, shiftless AND shiftless—get it?!), now to function as memes for the second term? Then you might want to watch the recent 60 Minutes segment on the “skills gap.”

"Three million open jobs in US, but who is qualified?" www.cbsnews.com

The premise (which I’ve discussed before in this blog) is that millions of American jobs are going unfilled; here CBS points to about 500,000 open positions in U.S. manufacturing businesses alone.  60 Minutes frames this as a puzzle: “How can it be,” correspondent Byron Pitts asks, that in a time of high national unemployment jobs are going begging?  Something is wrong, but what?

Like many of Obama’s own speeches on the topic, the segment indicates that tech innovation promises prosperity for U.S. firm owners and their workers alike, once an appropriately trained workforce is slotted into the new high-tech sector jobs.  The 60 Minutes report is more interesting than some other policy and media excursions into “skills gap” territory, however, because it introduces, if tentatively, the possibility that we need to consider the role of employers in the production of this “gap.”

Much of the 12-minute story focuses on the need in manufacturing firms, small and large, for workers trained in emergent production techniques.  We watch un- and underemployed Americans participating in educational and internship programs in order to attain eligibility for the new, higher-tech, mostly software-centered manufacturing positions that supposedly abound today.  The excitement of those participating in the programs and ultimately the sheer relief of the newly employed are both made very clear in the segment.

The head of one family-owned business, Click Bond, a defense contractor in Nevada that makes fasteners for precision machinery (as used in, say, fighter planes), explains that it is not practical or affordable for the firm itself to do the training.  This seems like a good argument for community college curricula and other publicly supported education-for-jobs, as promoted by Obama. And indeed, the company helped develop just such a program locally.  But then the report digs ever so slightly deeper to ask a CEO of Alcoa why, if such efficacious educational and training options exist, so many positions in U.S. manufacturing remain unfilled. The CEO tellingly answers that, “Well, this is not a society where you can tell somebody what– where to go work, or where to– what education to get, right?” Ah, the shiftless American worker, in every sense of the word!

Certainly not racist in the sense of Romney’s old-school bigotry last week regarding Obama’s “gifts” of public health and education to minority Americans, but a classic moralistic put-down of the disadvantaged, nonetheless.  Coming from a CEO of a major corporate force in the nation, it’s a potentially influential one, too. Praise to CBS for not leaving that neoliberal shoulder shrug unanswered. Instead, near the end of the segment Peter Cappelli, a Wharton management professor, introduces what is for mainstream media a somewhat shocking point: Maybe the labor market is not, in fact, a supply-and-demand operation.  Industrial wages have stagnated and even declined in many production sectors, Cappelli notes.  The ostensible fair pay and secure employment said to be just waiting for the willing citizen is at least in part a myth, and one that hides the economic advantages accruing to capital in America.

Let’s consider what a viewer new to the topic (and the issue is introduced as something folks may not know about yet… “It’s called ‘the skills gap,’” Pitts intones as the report starts), might take away from watching the piece. Again, all this is very lightly laid on. Robotics are cast as an industrial “innovation” without any mention of the negative impacts of automation on employment levels; there is no probing inquiry into outsourcing trends.  But at least 60 Minutes suggests that the idea of a “skills gap” requires investigation, airing however briefly the notion that the  interests of American employees and employers do not invariably converge…a convergence implicit in the very notion of such a gap.

A glancing blow, yes, and a long way from any kind of redistributive approach that might show the profoundly disempowered situation of labor today, but still an unusual step beyond the unalloyed boosterism that usually surrounds the topic.

Obama’s STEM Master Teachers: A Good Idea Made Better?

I’m excited about President Obama’s new idea for a billion-dollar STEM “Master Teacher Corps,” announced by the White House this week. I particularly like the idea that localities will choose the recipients of the title and its $20,000 stipend, providing a way to reward the science and math teachers they know to be the most excited and energetic.  But I worry that the school systems that currently generate innovative STEM teaching, that already support “highly competitive” teachers with the time and resources to develop this kind of curriculum, will dominate the competition  and skew corps membership away from the schools that most need added STEM support.

My idea: If all of the fretting about our national STEM “skills gap” is genuine, why not use half the money, or better yet, double the allotted pool of funding, to fund partners for each of the chosen teachers? These partners could be instructors of the same grade level, based in our most under-resourced districts.  Their “highly competitive” applications might include innovative math and science pedagogy  (as well as great energy), that has not yet been fully developed. Creative ideas for STEM instruction will come from both partners, but this would let those who’ve had little opportunity to create  teaching materials or implement a curriculum participate alongside those with established STEM teaching records.

American students who are normally the least likely to feel the effects of STEM education funding will benefit directly, and a powerful message of equity and inclusion would be built right into the new program.

So I suggest STEM Master Teacher Partnerships. A daunting administrative task?  If locating promising teachers in disadvantaged districts and coordinating partnerships seem like insurmountable tasks, all the more reason to shorten the distance between our “have” and “have not” schools.

Virtue Rewarded: The World According to Brooks

Give me some credit: For some months now I have successfully resisted the impulse to respond to David Brooks’ conservative writings about economic opportunity in America.  His logic is so extraordinarily selective that any critique of his arguments felt like hitting the side of barn; a target too big to miss…But today’s NYTimes column, in which Brooks tells us what is wrong with the American “meritocracy” of 2012, requires some attention from any social historian with a conscience.

Thinking about the Libor scandal and the many Wall Street troubles that have preceded it over the last couple of years, Brooks indicts the morals of today’s banking and corporate leaders, who unlike Groton and Yale graduates of yore, apparently possess no ethos of leadership.  They know “how to succeed,” but not “how to be virtuous” as did those previous generations, says Brooks.

Basically, Brooks wants us to distinguish between the ethics of “old” elites in U.S. history and “new.” The former, he says, were largely white, male members of the Protestant Establishment, born to privilege, and thus predictably “cruel” in their sexism, racism and anti-semitism. Still and all, these WASP stalwarts were competent and reliable directors of our banks, universities, country clubs and higher realms of government.  By contrast, today’s high achievers are more diverse in background and inherently pluralistic, having arisen not through social privilege but by being “brainy,” and Brooks sees in their success an index of these folks’ ambitiousness and discipline. But here’s the rub: despite their innate talents and vigor, today’s Wall Street financiers and economists are, sadly, nonetheless boobish and untrustworthy.  These new elites “stink,” and are giving merit a bad name.

They are, we read, “brats,” a condescending word Brooks clearly chose with care, and their immaturity and moral failings explain the dire financial straits into which these modern elites have plunged so much of the planet.  In gratuitiously characterizing themselves as anti-establishment (as they are wont to do, according to Brooks), today’s Harvard, Brown and Stanford grads deny responsibility for the conduct of the big institutions they in truth control. Brooks wants them to grow up and admit they are running the show because to do otherwise is… selfish!

Nobless oblige, anyone?  Putting aside for the moment Brooks’ willful denial that his subjects might be feeble conservatives precisely because they are trying to be effectual liberals (and just how hard they are trying is an important question, of course),  Brooks is hardly original in that accusation of selfishness.  The idea of there being “good” and “bad” elites is as old (and self-confirming) as Western philosophy itself.  Brooks is urging privileged Americans to acknowledge their elite status, to step up to the plate, and his naturalization of a hierarchical society is similarly unsurprising. We would expect him, as a conservative, to indict certain individuals as flawed while singing the praises of the social system from which those individuals derive their influence; a superficially reasoned stance perhaps, but again, not surprising.

What is important, however, is to unmask Brooks’ strategic deployment of “meritocracy” in this effort to depict American society as inherently democratic, despite the patently self-interested, classist aims of its corporate and financial institutions.  Focusing on merit,  a feature of individuals and not institutions or social structures, itself constrains the conversation profoundly.   It is only by denying structural problems like racism, gutted education budgets, and wage stagnation that one can use the term meritocracy unproblematically, as Brooks does.

Brooks’ is above all a deeply disingenuous argument, which pretends to care about the welfare of non-elites and to despise the bigotry of yesteryear, while actually reifying the power of privileged Americans and the closed, unreflexive nature of the institutions which produce and sustain that power.   Selective logic, indeed.




Opening the Lab: STEM Equity for Students with Disabilities

From ISci Science Access Blog (www.independencescience.com)

The exclusion of persons with disabilities from STEM disciplines is something I’m just starting to study.  If you know this blog, you know this is not really a set of discriminatory practices that I’ve  written about here.  And that is both telling and troubling because it is an aspect of STEM equity that should be integral to our thinking on the subject, not a distinct set of considerations, let alone one that trails after our more familiar concerns with race or gender discrimination.

I want to use this space to formulate questions about disabilities in scientific and technical disciplines, and as usual it is not a matter of looking for what we might label good- or ill intentions.  Instead we need ask questions like these, about seemingly practical decisions:  Why do some STEM instructors, when asked to accommodate students with disabilities, see insurmountable safety issues? Or prefer the use of classroom aides for students with disabilities rather than technical or procedural innovation that might lead to more direct student participation? Why do disabilities officers to whom I’ve spoken often find STEM departments less able to “find time” to make changes than other parts of the university?

I think one recent effort to address accessibility in the science lab holds a kernel of important ways to think about all this.

Take a look at this recent newspaper article, “Blind CU-Boulder Student Inspires Lab Changes,” by Whitney Bryen.  At the University of Colorado at Boulder, one creative and highly focused student, her willing instructors, and some innovative Disabilities Services staff members have together developed ways to make laboratory processes accessible to visually impaired researchers.

The student, Amelia Dickerson, is blind and had been frustrated by limits to her immersion in laboratory work for chemistry courses.  Working with the school’s disabilities services team, Dickerson’s chemistry professor Susan Hendrickson began to make material and procedural changes to lab practices that among other things allowed the student to ascertain experimental results through non-visual means.  Note how simple some of the changes were: for example, the addition of notches to the printed calibrations on lab glassware, at a cost of just 25 cents per test tube.

Look closely, as well, at the changes that involved higher-tech interventions, such as the school’s purchase of  a $900 apparatus that can help translate visual laboratory data into auditory information.  There are many more apparatuses of this nature on the market, such as those available from Independence Science,  and I’ll be writing about those shortly.

For now, I want to make the point that it is not cost alone that has stood in the way of wider laboratory adoption of such technologies; after all, very few labs have undertaken the 25-cent innovation, either. Rather, I see a belief among scientists that such translations are not translations at all, but alterations of laboratory data.  That is, I see an uncritical acceptance of the idea that it is the data’s visuality, its expression on a graph or instrument panel for scrutiny by the researcher in that form, that gives it meaning. In this view,  to re-present the data in any other format would be to change it.

Most scientists presume some optimal association of scientific form and content but unlike Hendrickson, never make such associations explicit. So conventional practices seem unassailable.   Thus is the student with disabilities rendered an unlikely future scientist in the eyes of many, without anyone actually saying that’s what’s happening. (These conventions of scientific display, incidentally, are a focus of  Science Studies, my home discipline).  My point here is that exposing and thinking about such epistemic features of STEM practice will help us understand and address discrimination faced by persons with disabilities, just as it has illuminated racial and gender inequities.

We know that science sees its procedures as the essence of its rigor. And, indeed, the precision with which a specimen or instrument is handled, or with which measurements are taken, is undeniably crucial to virtually every experimental protocol. But customary understandings of how that precision might be achieved are unnecessarily narrow.  And exclusionary.  CU-Boulder, and other sites such as the University of Washington’s Center for Universal Design in Education,  are taking on that exclusion.

As I tried to show in Race, Rigor and Selectivity in US Engineering, unexamined notions of technical rigor served for generations in America to reinforce the exclusion of HBCU researchers from science. So, too, notions of what counts as a precise handling or accurate measurement in the lab today reinforce the idea that accommodations for physical impairment necessarily reflect loosened standards of precision or accuracy.   Amelia Dickerson and some of the folks at CU-Boulder think this situation cannot stand. We should follow their lead.




Not just STEM, or, Why the American Economy Needs Humanities Majors



Poster from Federal Art Project/WPA

This blog usually focuses on opening the door to science occupations for groups traditionally under-represented in those fields.  Obviously, one aim here is the creation of more opportunities for rewarding and remunerative STEM-related careers for women, minorities and persons with disabilities.  All good. But I have to turn our attention for a minute to a logical fallacy that such activism might unfortunately support: the idea that higher education in the humanities and social sciences is a bad idea for any young person hoping for a paying career.

This is a trope that goes with the pervasive idea that American is suffering from a STEM talent shortage as “competitor” nations build their technical workforces…Which in some narrow sense might be the case, but the answer to that shortage is to provide more kids with higher quality, more welcoming science programming, NOT to turn young people away from their non-STEM passions and pleasures!

Frank Bruni’s column on “The Imperiled Promised of College” restates that not-very-good idea in today’s New York Times.  He fittingly notes the unaffordable cost of college for too many Americans today, but less helpfully sees a worrisome insistence among many students on dead-end degree programs that lead to less-than-meaningful working lives:

 Philosophy majors mull questions no more existential than the proper billowiness of the foamed milk atop a customer’s cappuccino. Anthropology majors contemplate the tribal behavior of the youngsters who shop at the Zara where they peddle skinny jeans.

As is often the case with such plaints, students’ engagement with humanities, arts and social science disciplines comes across in Bruni’s telling as pointless and naïve. But why should we accept that these venerable intellectual pursuits are occupational cul-de-sacs? You would have to accept the existence of an awful lot of social and cultural constraints in the process of doing so.

First:  You would have to accept that the low employment prospects for today’s humanities and social science grads mean that those disciplines are inherently a waste of everyone’s time and money—including the time and money of the anthropology, art history, film studies and philosophy majors who make up some of my brightest and most engaging students.  I will not be the one to tell these kids to suppress their fabulous curiosity, creativity and insight.

That first judgment in turn rests on the presumption that as a nation we cannot afford to create jobs for our arts and humanities graduates. The WPA famously produced some of the most enduring art, drama, and civil architecture in American history, but if that kind of outcome is too touchy-feely for you, think more practically.  Imagine not just the wealth of student experience and cultural excitement that a nationwide artist-, designer- or writer-in-residence program for American high schools would generate, but how students’ expressive abilities and communications skills would improve!  (…according to many educators, the very same  “soft skills” too many of our engineering students lack!)

And what about the democratic (dare I say, “global”?) potential of a nation with more science writers, equipped with federal grants to support their work for local newspapers? Or , with more social scientists specializing in research on the origins and impacts of science, technology and medicine…with funding to share their findings with both expert and community groups?  Our university humanities and social science programs can produce superb practitioners to fill these and many other positions.

Instead, Bruni and others wring their hands in unimaginative supplication to the conventional economic analysis that privileges industrial profits and  the projects that assure those profits.  The impoverished cultural and civic life that this vision projects for America is truly depressing… And, offers another instance where today’s low level of public resources for American arts and letters is naturalized as necessary for a healthy economy, asserting that we just don’t have the money for activities that don’t make money  (…or, make money for those who already have a way to make money, that is; NB how CEO salaries continued climbing throughout the recession).

Would we need big political and cultural changes to bring about this kind of renewal for the status and scale of humanities in American higher ed, a new and unfamiliar vision of what matters, and why? You bet…and just the job for artists, writers, philosophers and historians!

The STEM Gender Gap: Persistent but not Puzzling

This week of science festivals around the nation has mostly been a very festive occasion, indeed (I, for example, learned at a “science cabaret” last night that Linneaus was obsessed with bananas). It has also brought forth welcome coverage of equity issues in STEM fields: the perpetually low numbers of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in U.S. science and technology occupations. The correction of that under-representation partly justifies the festivals as efforts at STEM outreach and inclusion.

But in that coverage, my eye was caught by the very last point in a long article from PBS NewsHour by Jenny Marder this week, “Why Engineering, Science Gender Gap Persists.”

In this piece, Angela Bielefeldt, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Boulder who has done some very interesting work on the topic, had the last word:

“The important thing to note is how long we’ve been at this,” Bielefeldt said. “The fact that we’ve made no tangible forward progress despite working on this for a long time is puzzling and depressing… and again, we’re not sure what the secret is.”

“Depressing,” yes. That captures it perfectly. But: “Puzzling?” And, “Secret?” I think that language may arise from a spirit of thoughtful inquiry, but set up too many listeners to shrug and move on. I wonder if we too often use a politely perturbed tone to direct attention to something that is really far closer to bigotry than mystery.

As I see it, the previous pages of the article laid out many causes proven by studies over the last 40 (!) years to have contributed to women’s under-representation in STEM classrooms and jobs. These causes range from documented sexism in teaching, hiring and promotion practices to, “…A lack of female mentors” and ”subtle discrimination or work conditions in which men talk in a way that women found disrespectful.” Those are findings produced not by some narrow academic specialty, but by diverse scholarly disciplines (educational theory, workforce policy analysis, psychology, and by scholars in science and engineering themselves),  and by researchers from a huge range of institutions. Their sheer numbers add up to a powerful message for those who are willing to hear it: Day-to-day life in American classrooms and workplaces involves a constant stream of presumptions about the inborn capacities and desires of people of different identities.

There is no subtlety in the way these presumptions work to disadvantage certain groups. That’s clear  from the facts recounted in the article and broadcast, even if you don’t read the deeply disturbing collection of reactionary and creepily retrograde comments which follows the article (many referring to women’s innate intellectual disinclination towards science, or characterizing those concerned with these issues as “cry babies”…). What if Bielefeldt, a person who has clearly seen endless dismaying moments of this kind, had faced the microphone and instead of framing the problem as a mysterious social malaise had said instead, “The behavior I see every day  in classrooms, in labs, in administrative offices, and on civil engineering worksites is discriminatory, and unacceptable”?

Crucially, I don’t mean to say I would have done so.  The circumstances in which STEM activism occurs are by definition settings in which we must make our livings; it is terribly difficult to bring blame into the discussion. And, yes, those proverbial flies do prefer honey. More seriously, I deeply appreciate the very constructive (not blameful) cultural critique and pedagogical ideas introduced into the NewsHour discussion by Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College and a powerful advocate for bringing young women into the sciences. But if Klawe’s suggestions are to take hold in a significant number of educational settings, I want to suggest that in our discussions of the “gender gap,” we have to stop scratching our heads and own up to the dismal social reality revealed by the evidence offered by experts featured on the program, if not their tone.

The take-home: It is the very stuck-ness of Americans around equity issues, the fact of sexisms’ durability, that we need to foreground.  This lack of progress, as Bielefeldt says, is “the important thing to note.”  Unfortunately, her interviewers or their editors consigned that “thing” to the last note of the discussion. We should start our discussions, in the media and in our own institutions,  grasping and declaring this fact, not puzzled in the least.

STEM Equity: In Search of Trend Setters

Close your eyes and imagine a biology department or engineering school where every single one of the following policy changes has been implemented:

….universities might educate women graduate students about the downsides of alternative career paths, following partners’ career moves and taking time off. They could explore the use of part-time tenure-track positions for women having children that segue to full-time once children are older, and offer members of a couple the option to temporarily share a single full-time position. Further strategies include not penalizing older or nontraditional applicants for jobs; leveraging technology to enable parents to work from home while children are young or ill; providing parental leaves for primary caregivers of either gender and offering funding to foster successful reentry; and providing an academic role for women who have left professional positions to have children. Institutions could also try stopping tenure clocks for primary caregivers during family formation; adjusting the length of time allocated for work on grants to accommodate childrearing; offering no-cost grant extensions; providing supplements to hire postdocs to maintain labs during family leave; reducing teaching loads for parents of newborns; providing grants for retooling after parental leave; hiring couples; offering child care during professional meetings; providing high-quality university-based child care and emergency backup care; and instructing hiring committees to ignore family-related gaps in curricula vitae.

Amazing, right? This list, offered in Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci’s piece in American Scientist on “When Scientists Choose Motherhood,”  is striking for the variety of interventions it proposes: changes to hiring, tenure and leave policies; the introduction of new grant administration, childcare, and tele-commuting options…picture it: what a transformation!

But really, if we think about it, a good many of these institutional changes are in fact simply matters for HR.  There is not a lot here that threatens the essential features of teaching or research as those have been practiced in the academy for the last 120 years. Wait a minute: There is NOTHING here that undermines those practices in ANY way! It is the quality of life and levels of equity associated with academic work that would start to change if such policies were to be established.

So, why then does this list seem like fantasy?

Because, I suspect, any one of these changes, let alone the whole collection, would likely seem to many in the university today primarily like a gender-based accommodation,  a change to established institutional practice that derives from issues of practitioner identity. And American science is very, very reluctant to lend those issues any significant influence. We might feel bad about demographic imbalances in these professions, but we’re not going to let those “social” issues infiltrate our labs, classrooms, and other places where reputable, rigorous science is meant to be the order of the day.

That combination of impulses explains why the studies of race or gender inequity in STEM pile up, year after year, but the project of real inclusion in the academy just inches along.  (And of course, STEM is not alone in its cultural aversion to thinking about identity; thanks to Perri Strawn for making the connection to a similar critical discussion regarding business, by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox.)

So here’s an idea: What if we get prominent universities to leverage their existing reputations for rigor in STEM and model these very doable gender-equity reforms?  Our STEM disciplines are inherently aspirational, so it might only take one or two national or even regional leaders to make an impact in this way.  MIT under its now-retiring president Susan Hockfield took a few such steps; why not more steps, taken more conspicuously, to set in motion a large-scale transformation?

A second piece just out in Science (and summarized by Robin Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher Education) reminds us just how badly such shifts are needed.  Tracking careers of women in STEM fields, Deborah Kaminski and Cheryl Geisler  find that the high attrition rate among women STEM faculty in US universities largely offsets recent documented improvements in retention and promotion. Under existing conditions and hiring patterns, they report, university science departments would require nearly a century to attain gender parity.

A century?? We’re talking epochal time scales here! Yet go back to Williams and Ceci: there is clearly no shortage of good, creative thinking on what to do to change academic working conditions…on doable steps that would cost STEM programs money, but not rigor.

And we can’t let money stop the conversation, as it so often does: universities spend plenty of it on labs and salaries when they think those costs are merited to keep up their reputations. And that’s the key here: Again, STEM disciplines are by nature aspirational, judging all departments and programs in comparison to Big Guns like MIT, Stanford, Chicago, Berkeley, or Michigan.  If those leaders act, the much wider culture change may very well begin. Trend setters, step up: your to-do list is ready!